By Emma McBride MP

24 August 2020

While every Australian has been impacted by COVID-19, it's clear the economic impact, both in the short and long term, is falling disproportionately on Australian women. It is also clear that this economic impact is being felt more by women in regional and remote Australia. In my community on the Central Coast of New South Wales, underemployment of women is 34 per cent—the highest in Australia. The federal government must act. The global pandemic has exposed the social and economic fault lines in our society, and women are falling through the cracks. At a time when the work done by women, paid and unpaid, is protecting us and keeping us safe from COVID-19, it is undervalued and undermined by this government.

Women were already at the frontline of caring. According to the recent Deloitte Access Economics report, The value of informal care in 2020, 60 per cent of all carers and 70 per cent of primary carers are women, with primary carers spending an average of 35 hours per week providing care. A study by the government's Workplace Gender Equality Agency found that women are likely to increase time spent on caring responsibility as a result of the pandemic. They are more likely to care for sick family members at home and take on education related responsibilities while children are home from school. The report found the increasing caring responsibilities can heighten feelings of stress and limit women's economic opportunities. Clearly, much greater support for carers is needed.

Sadly, the pandemic has seen the very real human consequences of the gross underfunding of aged and disability care, a sector where women are on the frontline, underpaid and undervalued. Staff shortages, PPE shortage, casual work and poor pay and conditions, forcing individuals to work across multiple aged-care homes, have all contributed to the spread of COVID-19. These problems were known before the pandemic hit, and the government had spent less than half of the money it promised the aged-care sector for COVID-19 by the end of June when the outbreaks occurred in Victorian aged care.

This government must address the cost of child care and early childhood education. Instead, it has chosen to snap back to high fees in the middle of a recession. Many families will be forced to give up child care, and parents, particularly women, will be forced to give up work and the benefits of early childhood will be lost. Sarah, from Forresters Beach in my electorate, told me:

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become clear that our current government care less about the welfare and future of women and children than they do about large business and construction, which predominantly employ men. It is clear that our society does not value early childhood education as a meaningful and valuable contribution to the lives and outcomes of children, despite evidence to the contrary having been around for a long time. Investing in the care economy will create jobs and lift women's and girls' opportunities.

We've just marked Homelessness Week across Australia. A 2019 WYCA housing report found that women aged over 50 are the fastest growing group of people at risk of homelessness in Australia, with a 30 per cent rise in the number of women sleeping in their cars, couch surfing or accessing crisis accommodation since 2011. Labor has repeatedly called on the Morrison government to invest in social housing as part of a comprehensive stimulus plan to kickstart the economy. This includes building more social housing, the repair and maintenance of existing social housing and the building of more affordable rental accommodation for frontline workers—urgently needed for women.

Now more than ever it's important that the government addresses the gender pay gap. A recent report by the Financy Women's Index suggests that the pandemic is pushing out the time frame for closing this gap by another four years—another generation or more of Australian women working for less than they deserve and experiencing poverty during their working lives and in retirement. This government should strengthen the ability of the Fair Work Commission to order pay increases for workers in undervalued female-dominated industries and make pay equity a central objective of the Fair Work Act. The government should also invest in education and training programs to address the gender segregation of the Australian workforce.

This pandemic is risking the retirement security of many Australians, particularly women. Australian women retire with less super than men. The average superannuation balance at retirement for women is around $120,000 less than for men. The impact of job losses, underemployment and early withdrawal of superannuation savings due to financial hardship will only worsen this situation. The government must support, not undermine, the superannuation guarantee, the mechanism which has done the most to improve women's financial position in retirement. In closing, the government should produce a women's budget statement as part of the budget this year and every year for the benefit of all Australians.