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Issue #1538      7 March 2012

Outworkers: Symbol of exploitation of women’s labour

International Women’s Day (IWD) is a traditional time for summing up achievements and planning ahead. In the hundred and first year since the first IWD March the union movement will celebrate this year the Fair Work Australia’s (FWA) long-awaited Equal Remuneration decision for social and community services workers (SACS). Anna Pha (Guardian February 8) acknowledges the win but cautions it must be funded and backed by governments. She also made the call for contracting out and privatisation to be halted and reversed.

IWD is a time to not only look at past gains but to look to the many struggles that lie ahead before women achieve equality and emancipation. As Clara Zetkin, a founder of the movement says in her Selected Writings, “As far as the proletarian woman is concerned, it is capitalism’s need to exploit and search incessantly for a cheap labour force that has created the women’s question. It is for this reason, too, that the proletarian woman has become enmeshed in the mechanism of the economic life of our period and has been driven into the workshops and to the machines.”

It is with this in mind that this international women’s day the Communist Party of Australia looks to another group of vulnerable workers predominately made up of women usually from non-English speaking backgrounds, the outworkers of the textile, clothing and footwear sector and calls on Guardian readers to demand an end to the exploitation of these workers.

The numbers of outworkers is difficult to ascertain but estimates have been put at between 50,000 to 329,000. We believe the numbers could be higher and do not include the thousands of unpaid family members including children that the Victorian government acknowledged as an “undesirable side effect of outworking”. Even more worrying, the Brotherhood of St Laurence has reported the situation and the conditions for outworkers are worsening.

Outworkers are a powerful symbol of the exploitation of women workers. Outworkers are usually paid a piece rate payment equal to as little as $4 or $5 an hour, while the legal minimum wage is almost $16.00 an hour. Some manufacturers are known to bring outworkers together to “auction” off work to whoever will accept the lowest payment. In addition to low wages outworkers face further exploitation through insecure work with irregular hours, no job security, no superannuation, no work cover, and no severance pay and they frequently suffer non-payment of wages for work done. A number of surveys report numbers greater than 50 percent work longer than 10 hours, many doing up to 15 hours a day. The majority report working seven days a week with many reporting they experience verbal or even physical abuse from their employers.

The vulnerability of these workers is heightened by their invisibility; many outworkers work from their own homes making clothing, isolated physically and through a lack of English language; many experience cultural isolation.

In a recent interview Michele O’Neil, the national secretary of the Textile, Clothing, and Footwear Union of Australia (TCFUA) said “Abuse of workers can, and does occur in factories, sweatshops and in homes. For many years, some companies have gotten away with shamelessly exploiting workers in the productions of their products. Cutting wages and conditions does not lead to improved productivity or more jobs. It just leaves it to unscrupulous companies making greater profits. It is time for this industry’s future to be built on ethical, fair conditions for workers.”

By law these workers should already be entitled to most of the key protections and benefits under the Fair Work Act as workers in a factory, such as payment no less that minimum wage and hourly rate for the clothing industry, superannuation, annual leave and long service leave and severance pay. Most however are forced into sham contracting arrangements. The long, complex supply chains that characterise the industry further dogs compliance with minimum awards and conditions and occupational health safety is equally ignored. These workers have little if any bargaining power.

While the TCFUA lobbies for legislative changes to recognise outworkers’ rights they try to address the vulnerability of language and isolation by free English language classes and community building activities of English.

It is time for genuine reform of our industrial system to provide protection to the most vulnerable workers in Australia. Mostly classified as contractors the relationship they have with the suppliers is generally a commercial one, not an employee relationship. The Labor government has been under pressure from trade unions to amend the Act to ensure outworkers in the textile, clothing and footwear (TCF) industries are entitled regardless of their contractor status.

The Gillard government has expressed commitment to amend the FWA to extend the rights provided by the Act to outworkers in the textile, clothing and footwear sector. These rights include the right to compel bargaining, apply for good-faith bargaining orders that can lead to arbitration and penalties, and seek reinstatement and compensation under the unfair dismissal provisions.

While several unions and workers and international federations welcome the Bill to provide a safety net to the TCF industry on a national basis harmonising the currently inconsistent approach across the states, there is a threat that the new regulatory framework will still fail to deliver real change. The position of the Gillard government on contracting does not indicate it will provide unions with the power to monitor the industry or back the amendments with the enforcement powers and resourcing needed to police the activities of this industry.

The Communist Party calls for the term “contractor” to be refined to reflect a worker’s authority over their own work and to end sham arrangements in all sectors. Only those contractors who are in full control of their own labour should be considered genuine contractors. All other contractors regardless of the industry should be deemed “employees”. ACTU figures put the number of genuine contractors as just over half of the estimated 1.1 million workers. We call also for the trade union movement to have proper access to the workplace to investigate breaches, recruit members and the protection of safety on the job without 24 hour notice.

The struggle of outworkers, care workers, the struggle of all proletarian women is class struggle and it will be through the eradication of capitalism that women will ever really achieve full emancipation.  

Next article – Editorial – Dental health not optional

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