"Goldman Sachs chief economist Tim Toohey reported that closing the gap between male and female workforce participation would boost economic growth by at least 13 per cent. The sheer size of the economic payoff, about $180 billion, illustrates the folly of treating equal pay, parental leave, childcare, flexible working hours, female career paths and political and executive representation as essentially women’s or social policy issues.” — The Age editorial, August 29, 2011
How can a government have any economic credibility in relation to Treasurer Joe Hockey’s claim that the “Budget will help build a more prosperous nation” when it clearly lacks strategies to support women’s participation in the workforce? It could well be argued that the Budget will create barriers to women’s participation in the workforce.
The evidence is clear: to boost female workforce participation provision must be made for affordable education and childcare. Yet both of these have been attacked in the Budget despite warnings from years previously, as in The Age editorial (above), that to do so is sheer folly.
The deregulation of the university sector has the potential to deter women from entering university. The cost of degrees will increase along with the interest on HECS-HELP. This means that university-educated women who have a break in their careers for child rearing will be penalised as interest accumulates on their large university debt while they are out of the workforce.
Women who opt to attend a TAFE college to gain further education will also face a fee increase.
TAFE has traditionally played a vital role in supporting women re-entering the workforce after having families but with the attacks on TAFE courses, increases in fees and resulting debt this might no longer be the case.
Changes to childcare are a major hit to women’s advancement in the workforce.
The National Foundation for Australian Women has issued a report on the Budget stating: “For employed women using Family Day Care an immediate price rise in the order of $30 or more per week per child is likely.”
In addition, the threshold for the Child Care Benefit has been frozen and a cap of $7500 has been placed on the Child Care Rebate. The effect of this will be that some women will have to weigh up the financial benefits of working full-time as the $7500 is unlikely to stretch across an entire year, leaving them with hefty childcare fees to cover.
The legacy of the Abbott Government’s first budget is a looming crisis in childcare due to the axing of the $300 million Early Years Quality Fund established under Labor to provide childcare workers with a pay increase.
This, combined with the announcement in the Budget of abolishing the TAFE fee waiver for people obtaining childcare qualifications and the axing of the HECS-HELP benefit that reduces university fees for early childhood degrees, will make it much more difficult to attract and retain quality childcare workers in the future. Lack of quality and quantity in childcare will not encourage childbearing women back into the workforce.
The Prime Minister has committed himself to a paid parental leave scheme of 26 weeks at full wage replacement — a positive step for women in the workforce.
The Budget does not, however, provide any detail of this measure other than a one-line reference, and no funds have been appropriated for it in the Budget. There are, more-
over, serious doubts about whether the scheme will have enough support to pass through parliament.
The change to the pension age is also bad news. Women, who already experience a 17 per cent pay differential with men due to employer practices and to breaks in their careers to undertake carer responsibilities will, from 2035, have to wait until they are 70 before they can retire.
This, together with the axing of the Low Income Superannuation Contribution (LISC) which offered a tax rebate of up to $500 for low-income workers paying super, means women on low incomes will have to work longer and retire on less.
Women who are single parents and stay at home to raise their child will now find it more difficult to return to the workforce now that the programs that provide career advice for single and teenaged parents have been axed.
An increase in fees for childcare for parents on JET (Jobs, Education and Training) and cuts to the number of hours parents can get this childcare benefit will also impede a woman’s ability to return to the workforce after childbirth.
Other Budget measures that will disproportionately affect women include:
- the abolition of the Women’s Leadership and Development Strategy
- changes to Family Tax Benefit
- GP co-contribution
- changes to disability payments
- cuts to Legal Aid and legal centres
- slashing of overseas aid
- the abolition of Ethical Clothing Australia, which inspects working conditions in clothing factories, where many women work under “sweatshop” conditions.