Home - Claire Moore - Labor Senator for Queensland

ADJOURNMENT - Working Women's Centres

Senator MOORE (Queensland) (21:53): Working Women's Centres have a long record of delivering sound and proven services to vulnerable women in our country. Operating in three states-in South Australia, where the first Working Women's Centre opened in 1979; in the Northern Territory, where the centre was established in 1994; and in my home state of Queensland, where the Queensland Working Women's Service began in 1995-they have provided a free specialist employment advice service for vulnerable women and established a voice on systemic gender employment issues. We value these centres. They provide effective advice on development of policy.

The services that they provide are targeted towards vulnerable women who have neither the means nor the capacity to access assistance elsewhere, particularly women who are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander or those from a culturally or linguistically diverse background. Some of the women who have been coming to the services for many years have disabilities or they live in regional and remote areas or have family responsibilities. These Working Women's Centres also produce educational materials, deliver community education sessions all over their states, provide very worthwhile policy advice to government, make public comment as required-and I think we might be hearing some comments from them about the budget-as well as organise the acclaimed Our Work Our Lives national conference on women and industrial relations.

Women experience particular issues that impact on their ability to participate in or maintain connection with the workforce. These issues are well documented. They include, based on the work studies that have been done by the Working Women's Centres, issues such as pay and equity. We know that women make up 42 per cent of the workforce but earn 17.2 per cent less than men. On average, women are earning less than men now than they were 20 years ago. It is an astounding statistic when you think about it. We are actually going backwards!

Another issue is the superannuation gap, which we hear much about. Average superannuation balances for women at retirement are 52.8 per cent less than those for men. The very valuable work of the recent finance and public administration committee inquiry into this issue, chaired by Senator Jenny McAllister-the committee reported this week-provides an extraordinarily important snapshot of what is happening with women and superannuation in Australia today. It sends a lot of messages to us about how we need to ensure that women have effective retirement incomes so that they are not living in poverty or are not homeless.

On the issue of sexual harassment, the Working Women's Centres have records of women who have experienced sexual harassment in their workplaces. Figures indicate that up to one in four women have experienced some sexual harassment in their workplaces. Another issue is the under-representation of women at the top levels of management. These levels remain heavily male-dominated, with just 15.4 per cent of CEO positions and 27.4 per cent of key management personnel positions held by women.

We know that the Australian workforce is highly gender segregated. Women continue to be concentrated in the health, education and retail sectors, with those industries traditionally offering lower pay and less security than male-dominated industries. Women are more likely to be part-time or casual work, are more likely to be award-reliant and less likely to be unionised. In fact, the formation of the Working Women's Centres was done in close relationship with the trade union movement. Women who were less able to be actively involved in unions were seeking a place where they could receive some effective advice about their working situation, and the Working Women's Centres have provided that service.

Another issue is discrimination in the workplace. Women continue to experience gender based discrimination in the workplace. One in two mothers reported experiencing workplace discrimination as a result of their pregnancy, parental leave or on returning to work; one in five mothers were made redundant, restructured, dismissed or did not have their contracts. Importantly, in the area of domestic violence, Working Women's Centres over the years have provided an extraordinarily valuable service. They have been a safe place, where women who have been the victims of domestic violence can receive advice about their workplace issues. As we know, when women are involved in domestic violence situations often their employment security is threatened because they need to seek solace and are not able to fulfil their natural working responsibilities and end up losing the lot-not only their safety but also their work. That important element of maintaining an income was, again, very much brought out in the finance and public administration committee report-it sounds like a free advertisement for our committee! The inquiry looked into domestic violence and that important element of how security of work gives financial independence must be remembered when we are looking at plans to tackle domestic violence in our country.

We also need to ensure that women are seeking a service that responds to them, that understands the issues of family responsibilities and caring responsibilities and where people are valued for the work that they are doing. That is exactly what the Working Women's Centres have provided in the states which are lucky enough to have them.

In discussion with the Working Women's Centres about issues of funding-and I will get to that-they did provide me with some fascinating studies of the work that they did with the real and complex issues faced by vulnerable working women. I will just mention a couple of these-certainly, these have been done with the full knowledge of the women that their stories will be told.

There was the issue of sexual harassment and exploitation of a young overseas worker in Brisbane. The young woman, whose name I will not mention, experienced unwelcome and frequent touching and sexual advances. She was a chef, working in an area where she had not very strong English. The young woman responded to the chef's requests for a relationship by telling him that she did not want to have a relationship, and that she respected his family.

Her coping mechanism was to remain focused on her work and to remain polite. Nonetheless, and to no avail, she consistently declined the chef's request for a sexual relationship. The chef's unwelcome sexual advances continued for 12 months, and over that time he became more coercive in his manner and threatened her that if she made a complaint it would lead to her dismissal.

The young woman, an international student, felt powerless to challenge the unwanted behaviour and knew that her impending 457 visa application could not be made without her employer's support. Eventually, she became very disturbed; her mental health deteriorated and she told a young friend about her situation. Fortunately, the person who she told knew about the Queensland Working Women's Service. It was through the Queensland Working Women's Service's advocacy that this woman was linked to antidiscrimination law, so she was able to secure financial compensation for her losses and an apology. And the employer became aware that his behaviour was not only unwanted but illegal. Through that process, the working relationship in that workplace was improved for both of the people involved.

Around the DV process, we have stories about how a woman can actually come to a working women's centre and be opened up to a range of support networks-not just for employment law but also for family law and safety. Through this process, which is in a woman-friendly environment, there is this aspect of support.

Madam Acting Deputy President Peris, you may be aware that I asked a question of the minister only in the last sitting period about the fact that the funding for the working women's services is due to finish at the end of this financial year. At the time the minister said that she would 'consider' the arrangements for Working Women's Centres. We hope that tonight's budget has actually picked up something in that area.

But we know that these services are funded traditionally by a combination of state and federal funding. That has been there from the start, and in many times over the past these services have been threatened financially. To this date they have been able to survive and to provide the kinds of services which I have spoken about tonight. We believe that there is a real opportunity to make sure that these services can continue to operate into the future-not be involved in open tender processes that look at inclusive processes, which would mean that Working Women's Centres would have to cross out that term 'women' in their name. They would have to provide services for all genders.

I believe in inclusion, but I strongly believe that to ensure the safety, security and accessibility of effective advice for women that we need to value the services of the Working Women's Centres. We need to fund them effectively. We will know then that women will continue to have an option to ensure that they can be safe and that they can have independent advice, and that they know they will be the focus of their own services.