'Pretty ridiculous': Nine hours a day, five days a week, just to cover the rent
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'Pretty ridiculous': Nine hours a day, five days a week, just to cover the rent

After seven years working in early childhood education, Gwen Alwood still only earns enough to pay her rent in the Sydney suburb of Rockdale with about $100 to spare each fortnight.

"My wage only covers rent and that is pretty ridiculous. I work nine hours a day, five days a week," she said.

Early childhood educator Gwen Alwood.

Early childhood educator Gwen Alwood.Credit:Wolter Peeters

When she started in the profession as a trainee seven years ago, Ms Alwood said she earned just $20,000 per year.

She is among workers battling for more pay and an increase in superannuation for women who are often in lower paid professions.

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"There are women I know who are retiring with less than $100,000 in super who have worked in early childhood for more than 30 years," she said.

As Kelly O’Dwyer, Minister for Jobs and Industrial Relations, prepares to deliver the federal government's first statement on women's economic security in coming weeks, the Australian Council of Trade Unions has released a blueprint for improving gender equity in the workplace.

It would put the onus on businesses and unions to prove women weren't worse off than their male counterparts in wage deals.

The ACTU’s suite of proposals includes calls for an increase in superannuation for women who are often in lower paid professions and leave the workforce temporarily to look after children.

Theodora Hatzihrisafis at home with her three children, Petra, 9, Mina, 4 and Steven, 5.

Theodora Hatzihrisafis at home with her three children, Petra, 9, Mina, 4 and Steven, 5.Credit:James Alcock

That’s a familiar situation for early childhood teacher Theodora Hatzihrisafis, who has university teaching degree and TAFE Certificate III qualifications.

But having taken four years off work to raise three children, she is likely to retire with less than most men.

"That is nearly four years I have missed out on superannuation that will mean thousands of dollars less for my retirement," she said.

That’s on top of having funded her own return to the workforce after having children, when “about 60 per cent of my wage was going to childcare fees”.

An ACTU study says the gender pay gap stands at 15.3 per cent, with women earning on average $253.70 less than men each week. When it comes to full-time pay, men take home 22.4 per cent more than women each year.

The average superannuation balances for women at retirement age between 60 to 64 is 42 per cent less than for men. That works out at an average of less than $80,000.

"This is unlikely to fund any more than three years of retirement even on the most basic living standard," the unions’ report says.

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To ensure fewer women retire in poverty, the ACTU is calling for the removal of a $450 minimum threshold on earnings that attract compulsory employer superannuation contributions. It believes women in part-time and short-term work should be paid superannuation for every dollar they earn below $450.

The union also wants an increase in the low-income superannuation tax offset from $500 to a maximum payment of $1000. This would entitle workers earning up to $37,000 a year to receive a yearly payment of up to $1000.

Marian Baird, Professor of Gender and Employment Relations at the University of Sydney, said she saw "great merit" in removing the $450 per month minimum threshold because it disadvantages women and other workers in low paid or precarious jobs.

"It is also an incentive for employers to break down people's employment and income to levels that sit under the threshold," she said.

ACTU president Michele O'Neil said the Fair Work Commission should be empowered to intervene in enterprise bargaining to ensure that gender equity issues were resolved.

ACTU president, Michele O'Neil.

ACTU president, Michele O'Neil.

"And, as part of the approval process, that whatever type of agreements are in place should not be approved if they don't afford equal remuneration for work of equal or comparable value," she said.

Ms O'Dwyer said the government was already working towards addressing pay inequity, including measures on flexible work, paid parental leave and early childhood education and child care reforms.

“Women are now employed in record numbers with the gender pay gap at a record low," she said.

Kelly O’Dwyer, Minister for Jobs and Industrial Relations, will deliver the federal government's first statement on women's economic security in coming weeks.

Kelly O’Dwyer, Minister for Jobs and Industrial Relations, will deliver the federal government's first statement on women's economic security in coming weeks.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive James Pearson said industrial relations regulation was not the way to achieving better retirement incomes for women.

"Awards set pay on a gender neutral basis and there are already pay equity laws and laws to prevent discrimination on the basis of gender," Mr Pearson said.

"Further workplace regulation is not the answer and restrictions on flexible work would be counterproductive."

Labor's spokesman on Employment, Brendan O'Connor said "more has to be done to ensure that women are treated properly, and are afforded the same wages for the same skills, qualifications, and responsibilities as men".

Alex Heron from the University of Sydney Business School Women, Work and Leadership Research Group said the ACTU proposal was a good idea to tackle gender pay inequity.

"To make that a reality resources need to be available to union and employer negotiators to help them identify where gender pay gaps arise and find solutions. The Fair Work Commission and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency could work together to skill up workplace negotiators," she said.

Anna Patty is Workplace Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald. She is a former Education Editor, State Political Reporter and Health Reporter. Her reports on inequity in schools funding led to the Gonski reforms and won her national awards. Her coverage of health exposed unnecessary patient deaths at Campbelltown Hospital and led to judicial and parliamentary inquiries. At The Times of London, she exposed flaws in international medical trials.