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Lawyers condemn ‘gendered’ government stance on minimum wage

Lawyers condemn ‘gendered’ government stance on minimum wage

Women will suffer most, an Australian legal body says, following the federal response to the Fair Work Commission’s 2017 wage review.

The gender pay gap in Australia will be exacerbated by the position the federal government has taken with respect to increasing the minimum wage, according to the Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR).

The group has expressed concern about aspects of the government submission which shares the view that most low-wage jobs are temporary. Adopting the view that poorly paid work is temporary overlooks key groups, such as middle-aged women, single mothers and migrant women who experience less wage progression on the whole, the ALHR said.

“The government’s misplaced assumptions about the transitory nature of low-paid work totally ignore the gendered nature of employment mobility and systemic discrimination that women may face.”

“Women generally have less upward mobility in employment compared to men,” the ALHR said.

The government published its 2017 annual wage review submission to Fair Work Commission last week. The 77-page document describes the nation as being in the “midst of a domestic transition” and underscores the need for wage flexibility as “an important mechanism to support employment during this period of ongoing structural adjustment to the economy”.

The official government position on minimum wage has drawn the ire of some groups, including the ALHR’s subcommittee on Women and Girls’ Rights. A statement released by the group highlighted shortcomings in the government submission to the Fair Work Commission and the disproportionate effect the policy would have on Australian women across the board.

“The government’s view is misguided and risks entrenching further inequalities for lower paid workers generally, and in particular women and young people, who are overrepresented in lower paid jobs,” the ALHR said.

“ALHR calls on the government to further consider the potential harm caused to low-paid workers generally by their submissions to the Fair Work Commission, and recognise the gendered nature of employment and women’s needs consistent with obligations under the UN's Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.”

The group says evidence-based research has shown increasing the minimum wage can go some way to addressing the gender pay gap in workforces. This runs in the opposite direction to arguments advanced in the government submission to the Fair Work Commission that increasing the minimum wage has a modest impact on the overall gender pay gap, and should be considered to be a “blunt instrument” for remedy.

“This clearly ignores the fact that women are more likely to rely on the minimum wage and that decisions regarding the minimum wage will disproportionately impact on women,” ALHR’s Dr Rita Shackel said.

Dr Shackel leads the Women and Girls’ Rights subcommittee as co-chair, alongside Anna Kerr. The pair have gone on the record to rebuke the sexist way the government submissions frame low-wage earners belonging to households with a high income overall.

Dr Shackel and Ms Kerr specifically warn against statements in the government submission, which they view as sexist.  

“The government has suggested that ‘low-paid workers are more likely to be young, female, single or without children’, and that they have ‘varied levels of living standards and household income, with nearly half in the top 50 per cent of household income.’ According to the government, this means minimum wage increases will also be ‘directed to well-off households’,” Ms Kerr said

“These statements are dangerous and are unacceptable and adopt a retrogressive and reductive view of women, according them, status only as an extension of their partner. This view fails to respect women’s autonomy and agency,” she said.

In its submission to the Fair Work Commission, the government urged for a “cautious approach” to increasing the minimum wage.

According to the submission, the gender pay gap for full-time workers in Australia was at 16 per cent in 2016. The federal plan to address this pay gap looks beyond minimum wage, the submission said, with initiatives aimed at encouraging industry leaders and employers to the address pay gaps evident in their own organisations.

The government said it was committed to working to close the gap and also supported more workplace policies that gave men and women employees the ability to better balance life responsibilities, including flexible, accessible and affordable childcare.

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