Uncivil society: women’s contributions grossly undervalued

Judging by last week’s budget, the federal government grossly undervalues the contributions made by female workers, both unpaid and paid. Given the huge contribution of women in care jobs during the worst of the pandemic, the absence of support is seen as deeply offensive. 

The budget focused almost exclusively on the private sector as the source of reconstructing the economy, thus excluding many non-government structures that offer a range of key services to the community.

Moreover, the Government’s definition of this sector seems limited to businesses that operate primarily as profit-making enterprises. The budget does not fund by needs but by categorised profit capacities. Thus services that target care needs have been overlooked, including the needs of children and older people.

There are a multitude of care service occupations, often run by community groups, charities and other non-profit groups. Few were even mentioned in the budget. Many desperately need additional staff, as their funding rarely allows them to staff adequately. Yet the Job Hiring Credit is of no benefit, because such groups don’t have the funding to top up the subsidy into a (still low) working wage.

Where there are for-profit services, as there are in some care areas, the profit margins squeeze staffing budgets, so lower pay and understaffing are common in the care sector.

Other than continued assistance for providers affected by Victoria’s stage 4 restrictions, the Budget provides nothing new for childcare providers. The lack of any serious reform for an essential service that the federal government has stuffed up has created some very angry women who want a return to free or, at least, affordable care. Given the huge contribution of women in care jobs during the worst of the pandemic, this absence is seen as deeply offensive. The lack of affordable childcare simply limits the capacity of women to get back into the workforce.

Children’s care services were first federally funded in World War II to free up women to take on jobs as men enlisted. Federal funding stopped post war but started again in the 1970s. Women were becoming increasingly aware of the importance of early education for children, while increased birth control meant more women were seeking paid work. The Whitlam government funded non-profit services but by the end of the century, funding shifted to reimburse families directly, as more commercial services appeared and market-based policies dominated. No longer did government have control over the location of services, fee levels, age mixes, and user engagement.

Since then there have been more funding changes and the number of commercial chains has expanded. But accessing childcare was limited by parents’ hours of paid work, not their children’s needs for education and care. Many services charged high fees, and affordability and locations became problematic. So, the arrival of the pandemic created problems because as parents removed children, services were no longer viable. The  federal government had to intervene.

To quote the budget papers:

‘During the early stages of the pandemic, families received free child care through the Early Childhood Education and Care Relief Package. The package provided $1.9 billion to support the … sector including weekly Business Continuity Payments to child care providers worth 50% of the sector’s fee revenue pre-COVID. The Relief Package meant that 99% of Australia’s 13,400 child-care services remained operational and were able to provide care to vulnerable and disadvantaged children and the children of essential workers.’

Users and advocates were delighted but it proved to be short lived. In July the support was changed to a direct subsidy, which was over-complex and fees were reinstated. However, the calls for free child-care gathered pace again, and the messy Transition System remained.

The other somewhat related issue is the failure of the government to fund adequately the estimated 100,000 already approved Aged Home Care Packages, instead offering only 24,000.

There are four levels of Home Care packages, matched to the support needed by the applicant. Yet the budget will only fund 2,000 packages for the high need category 4. Many people die before they get funding, while others end up being placed in forms of residential care as family and other supports fail to cope.

This is appalling neglect, both given the issues of residential care, which received widespread coverage during the pandemic, and the fact that their home carers often work in essential services outside the home. Why not fund the lot? It would ensure some valuable timeout for those providing the unpaid care and ensure they are able to keep their jobs. It would also ensure more paid work was available.

But, as with children’s services, aged care is not priority.

As for pay rates for care work, they are generally well below those offered for male jobs that require similar training but masculinised skills. I remember a Victorian award case where women in child-care services were paid less than men who worked in parking stations. The gender divide that underpins these areas of employment reflect the continuing undervaluing of care skills.

We need a budget that spends money on needed jobs and fixes gender-biased pay. Such a budget would create better funding and regulations to ensure qualified staff in areas such as children’s services, aged care and similar organisations. This would both provide more jobs, happier recipients and ensure more trust that those in power were offering citizens more civil societies.

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Eva Maria Cox AO is an Austrian-born Australian writer, feminist, sociologist, social commentator and activist. She has been an active advocate for creating a "more civil" society.

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