Senate inquiry calls for big legislative changes

The Achieving economic security for women in retirement Senate report, released last week, has proposed a review of the Fair Work Act 2009 and amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act.

The inquiry was undertaken by the Senate Economics References Committee and the recommendations were released on Friday.

Following a submissions process that ended 30 October 2015, the report made 19 recommendations intended to help women increase their participation in the workforce and improve their superannuation savings.

One of the recommendations made is that the Australian government reviews the Fair Work Act 2009 to “determine the effectiveness of Equal Remuneration Orders in addressing gender pay equality, and consequently in closing the gender pay gap”.

The Senate committee said the review should consider “alternative mechanisms to allow for a less adversarial consideration of the undervaluing of women’s work”.

The committee said the “historical undervaluing of women’s work in female-dominated industries and sectors” will not be rectified without intervention.

The report noted that the Australian Services Union’s equal pay case was the only successful case under current legislation.

“The committee considers that the Equal Remuneration Orders under the Fair Work Act should be reviewed to examine how the system can be improved to ensure the mechanisms for bringing forward equal pay cases are accessible and not overly burdensome for applicants,” the report said.

The committee also noted there was evidence to suggest that pay secrecy arrangements were commonplace in some sectors and could pose a barrier to pay equity.

“The committee does not see any compelling reason for employers to impose these restrictions on employees,” the report said.

The report also made proposals on introducing further legislation preventing discrimination against working parents and older Australians.

It suggested the government strongly consider the recommendation from the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) to “extend the discrimination ground of ‘family responsibilities’ under the Sex Discrimination Act to include indirect discrimination; and include a positive duty on employers to reasonably accommodate the needs of workers who are pregnant and/or have family responsibilities”.

“The Australian Human Rights Commission’s findings may [also] provide further opportunity to introduce measures to address age discrimination experienced by older Australians, particularly women,” the report said.

It also referred to observations made by AHRC that “older women are more likely than men to face age discrimination due to perceptions that they have outdated skills, are too slow to learn new things or that they will deliver an unsatisfactory job”.

Another recommendation put forward by the committee was that superannuation tax concessions be retargeted to ensure they are more equitably distributed and to assist people with lower super balances to achieve a more comfortable retirement.

“It is the committee’s view that the distribution of superannuation tax concessions should be fair, efficient and effective,” the report said.

“Current superannuation taxation arrangements compound rather than ameliorate the superannuation savings gap. The committee considers that superannuation tax concessions should be better targeted to facilitate improved outcomes for women in retirement.”

The committee acknowledged that “gender is only one aspect of the broader issue of the equity and efficiency of superannuation tax concessions” but also noted that women are over-represented in lower-income, lower-wealth cohorts.

“The committee considers that a fairer distribution of superannuation tax concessions, in which the benefit of those concessions is more evenly shared across the labour force, would help address the gender retirement savings gap,” the report said.

Women in Super chair Cate Wood said the recommendations highlight the structural unfairness of the current superannuation system, which has clearly failed women who are retiring with just over half the super savings of men.

“We have tinkered around the edges for too long,” Ms Wood said.

“It is time to break with the past and take the fair and rightful step forward by implementing structural changes.”

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