The Queensland Working Women's Service Needs Action Now

Along with Susan Lamb and Lisa Chesters, I spoke to the parliament about the urgent need for action from the Turnbull Government to keep the doors open at the Queensland Working Women's Service.

My full speech can be found below along with the speeches from Susan Lamb and Lisa Chesters.

Ms BUTLER (Griffith) (17:43):  I have known the Queensland Working Women's Service for a very long time. In fact, my association with them dates back to when I was an articled clerk in the early 2000s, and I got to know the Queensland Working Women's Service when Cath Rafferty was the coordinator, which is a very long time ago now. Since I got to know them, I spent my period in legal practice offering their clients either free or heavily discounted legal advice, because I was so impressed by the work the Queensland Working Women's Service did—a not-for-profit organisation with a management committee made up of volunteers and highly professional and impressive staff who were working for pay. In the community sector, pay is not what it is in the private sector, and any of those people could have got a job out in the private sector, but instead they decided to take a discount on their pay and work for a community education because of the vocation that they had: wanting to help people who were having trouble at work and particularly women who were having trouble at work.

 It is important because women tend to have a bit less power at work. They tend to be a bit less unionised and they tend to be a bit more vulnerable to exploitation, particularly women in less skilled occupations or in low-paid occupations. So a service like Queensland Working Women's Service is really important.

Since 1994, Queensland Working Women's Service have been providing assistance to vulnerable women in Queensland about their rights at work, and they have the objective of assisting women to remain in employment and to reduce the risk of poverty, financial hardship or reliance on welfare. They provide assistance to women in all sorts of circumstances where they are experiencing workplace related issues, like domestic violence, which is an issue at work because, if you have an ex or a partner who is violent towards you, that can manifest in control at work or tracking you down at work. But they have also helped women in all sorts of other situations. Pregnancy discrimination is one. Workplace bullying is another. In fact, Cath Rafferty, whom I mentioned before, led the Queensland task force in relation to workplace bullying in the early 2000s and was instrumental in the workplace health and safety guideline being created as a way for employers to have best practice to avoid bullying in their workplaces.

It should be clear that the service that this organisation provides and has provided since 1994 is invaluable. It is unfortunate, therefore, that there has been a decision by the Fair Work Ombudsman not to fund the Queensland Working Women's Service and a failure by the Turnbull government to provide additional funding to it. Consequently, I regret to advise that the service has announced that it will be looking at closure on 8 March, which is regrettable—and isn't it ironic that, on International Women's Day, a service that has been providing these supports for women since 1994 will have to close unless it is funded?

I wanted to rise in this place today to raise concerns about this decision not to fund the Queensland Working Women's Service. In 2016 alone, this service assisted over 1,000 women to get access to information, advice and advocacy on their behalf in relation to employment matters or concerns, including over 4,000 specialist advisory sessions for vulnerable workers. In that one year, the service negotiated over $770,000 by way of settlements for outstanding entitlements or compensation for alleged breaches of industrial and discrimination laws for their clients. All of these services were provided free of charge to the most vulnerable women in our community. Over the period 2015-16 most of the inquiries were about unfair dismissal, at 42 per cent, followed by discrimination, at 28 per cent, and workplace harassment and bullying, at 25 per cent.

The Prime Minister says that he believes that, when a woman is empowered, the whole economy, the whole community, benefits. That should also mean that he wants to see women being empowered. Unfortunately that does mean providing support to women who are vulnerable and who are in trouble at work. So the Queensland Working Women's Service need some action and they need it now. They feel abandoned by the federal government because of this decision to not fund them. They have made very clear that they are looking at having to close their doors. The Northern Territory and South Australian chapters have also had their federal funding cut, through the Fair Work Ombudsman, but they have received funding through a separate grant, whereas Queensland have not. This is a very specific issue for people in Queensland. This will leave a great big hole in the support that is available to women in vulnerable situations who are vulnerable to exploitation. It is a wrong and it should be righted by this government.

 

Susan Lamb:

Ms LAMB (Longman) (17:48): I second the motion. I support the member for Griffith's motion condemning the government's refusal to fund the work of the Queensland Working Women's Service. I am disgusted that the current government continues its attack on working women. Quite frankly, I am sick of just expecting it now.

But what really could you expect from a government whose Minister for Women thinks that feminism is done and dusted?

What more could you expect from a government that does not understand that not everyone just happens to find their way into parliament; who does not understand that there are countless hardworking women who have been let down by the system time and time again; and that there are women who are abused, bullied, harassed and discriminated against in their workplaces? What more could you expect from a government that welcomes cutting the take-home pay of working women, working in retail and hospitality? What more could you expect from a government that has just lost touch?

This government's refusal to fund the Queensland Working Women's Service, whose more than 22 years of extraordinary work in providing free specialist information, advice and representation to vulnerable women, means their doors will be forced to close in just a few weeks time.

The Queensland Working Women's Service have already cut back from their original 15 centres across

Queensland to just one phone and one email hotline run by seven staff, despite receiving somewhere between 12 and 20 concerns a day. In the 2016 financial year alone, as the member for Griffith said, the Queensland Working Women's Service secured over $770,000 in unpaid entitlements and compensation. Just imagine the good we could do with support from a government that actually does care, if that is what we can achieve with a government who has lost touch.

Let's remember this is a government who refuses to support victims of abuse with paid domestic violence leave—refuses to support them. Not only have they refused to help these victims but Senator Cash recently was so bold, so callous, as to say that helping these women would actually stop employers from hiring women—absolutely atrocious. This reasoning defies all logic. If supporting people through some of the most difficult times in their lives causes workplace discrimination, then is that not just yet another reason for services like Queensland Working Women's Service to actually exist?

Just this week, I spoke with the Queensland Working Women's Service director Kerriann Dear. Kerrieann really opened my eyes to the types of complex issues and cases that the service has worked upon—and I am sure the member for Griffith would be able to add to some of these stories that Kerriann spoke to me about.

One story in particular was about a migrant worker—a lady from Korea—who came to Australia to work as a chef. In her workplace, she suffered insidious abuse. She was sexually harassed on multiple occasions, not just once, was told repeatedly that, if she left or spoke out about her abusers, her visa would not be sponsored. This woman's entire life was held to ransom and, because of it, she suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. This is not a stand-alone case, as Kerriann Dear told me; there are women all over Australia who suffer at the hands of their employers, and it is these women who need help from services like the Queensland Working Women's Service.

Ms Dear went on to tell me that, despite our population predominantly living in metropolitan centres, over 65 per cent of the cases in Queensland come from regional areas—regional areas like my seat of Longman, just north of Brisbane, seats like Herbert in North Queensland, and women calling home places like Redcliffe and Deception Bay in the electorates of Dickson and Petrie.

Who does this government think that these women can turn to, if they cut these critical services? It is not like these services can be resolved in a matter of days. They are quite complex. Sometimes it takes weeks. Many of these cases can actually take months. Right now there are women who have started the process of getting support, getting help and having advocacy work done for them who are now going to have their hopes dashed by a government who has let the funding expire before these women get a resolution.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten recently said:

There is no such thing as trickle-down feminism—

and I absolutely agree. Just talking about inequality does not fix anything. We have to build equality from the ground up. We have to fight for the most vulnerable and the most disadvantaged. We need services like Ms Dear and Queensland Working Women's Service to stand beside us and to fight with us. Thank you.

 

Lisa Chesters:

Ms CHESTERS (Bendigo) (17:54): I rise to also speak in favour of the motion and wish that there were services like this all over the country. Learning about the great work that the Queensland Working Women's Service is doing for the women of Queensland makes me wish we had one in Bendigo. It makes me wish that we had a service like this for regional women all over our country.

As the previous speakers have said, women living in regional areas rely heavily upon the service. Just this one statistic alone speaks to the strength and the importance of this service. Over the 2015-16 period, the majority of inquiries received by the Queensland Working Women's Service were concerned with unfair, unlawful and invalid dismissals—42 per cent of the inquiries they received, followed by 28 per cent of inquiries being about discrimination and 25 per cent about workplace harassment.

We have not reached gender equality yet in our country. It is still a daily prospect for women working that they face harassment in their workplaces because of their gender. Yet a service which is helping to address this, a service which is providing much-needed legal advice and advocacy for the women experiencing this discrimination or harassment is about to close its doors because this government and the Fair Work Ombudsman have not continued their funding.

This service has also supported women in recovering money owed to them, over $770,000 by way of settlement.

We know the statistics: the number of women who go without super because their employer has not paid and the number of women who have accepted low pay, not realising what they were legally entitled to or fearing losing the job. This service has helped them—over 4,000 cases supporting women in these situations.

If only other services achieved the outcomes of these statistics. There is a need for this service to continue in Queensland. It is a large state. It stretches from Brisbane to Cairns, which is like stretching from Brisbane down to Melbourne. It is a large state, with great distances between support for many of these women, so having a reliable phone service is vital. People in regional electorates understand this. If you are a woman living in Echuca, it is harder to seek advice and support than for a woman in Bendigo or in Melbourne. That is why it is so disappointing that this government is going after this vital service which is supporting women.

We know that we still have a lot of work to do in terms of the gender pay gap in our country. Through its work, the statistics it collects and who it helps, this service helps to highlight the gender pay gap within our community.

This is more than just statistics, however. This is also the real case of women being taken advantage of by their employers. It is only through advocacy and support like that of the Queensland Working Women's Service that we will continue to break down the gender barriers that exist within our workplaces.

We have seen more recently in a number of our states, a growing number of young worker centres modelled on this model that we have in Queensland. In Victoria the Young Workers Centre is helping young workers—also there is South Australia and Tasmania. These services help to connect people to the advice and the support that they need to stand up against exploitation, harassment and discrimination.

We still have women who go to work in hospitality and in retail not only having had a blow in terms of a pay cut but also having been told to suck it up when it comes to harassment. They are told harassment is part of the job; they are told to tie a knot in the front of their shirt or to wear short shorts because that will sell more beers.

When we still have women being asked to put on certain outfits to attract male clients then we still have gender inequality and we still have a need for services like this service.

I call on the government to at least do one good thing for working women today: restore the funding so that this service can continue and, in fact, expand it so that women in states like my state of Victoria can access the same services.

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