Originally published in The Guardian on June 10, 2020

by Richard Denniss
[Originally Published on Guardian Australia, 10 June 2020]

Not only have women been hardest hit by the response to Covid-19, they have got the least out of government assistance and stimulus packages. Monday’s announcement that the temporary provision of free childcare is about to end was just the latest in a long line of policy choices – made by the male prime minister, male treasurer and male finance minister – that weigh heavily on women in the Australian labour market.

While the treasurer is right that he “has to draw the line somewhere”, he is wrong to keep drawing that line in places that harm women. Since the crisis began, 5.3%  of employed women have lost their jobs compared with 3.9% of men. Women’s hours of work have fallen by 11.5%  compared with 7.5%  for men. And women are more than twice as likely to have stopped looking for a new job, presumably because they have taken on a disproportionate amount of homeschooling.

Conservative governments have spent decades telling voters about their skills in economic management, but in this time of crisis they work tirelessly to blame Covid-19, rather than their choices, for the distribution of economic pain. In addition to choosing to exclude most casuals from jobkeeper and end free childcare, they have also decided to extend the small business instant asset write-off used by tradies (at a cost of $700m) and introduce a new $688m scheme to create jobs for tradies via subsidies for new homes and expensive renovations. The Morrison government’s decision to exclude most casuals from jobkeeper also disadvantages women. Women account for a disproportionate share of casual workers, and workplace culture and laws in Australia make it much easier to load up the pain of recession on to those with less secure employment contracts. Casual and short-term contract workers in Australia were struggling with low wage growth, poor job security, expensive housing and challenges accessing childcare before Covid-19 hit. When the commonwealth government announced its decision to exclude most casuals from jobkeeper, they did so largely on the basis that casuals should have saved for a rainy day. Then they announced a $90bn line of credit for the big banks.

The government knows that women are far more likely to work in industries such as health and education than they are to work in construction. The government knows that women have suffered a disproportionate hit from the recession. Yet, despite knowing these things, the government keeps talking up the need to stimulate male-intensive industries such as construction. Choices matter.

If the government wanted to maximise the number of jobs it created per million dollars, and it wanted to make sure its stimulus policies were delivering jobs for women in line with the proportion of those who now need them, it would not be hard to do. My Australia Institute colleague, David Richardson, and I looked at the Australian Bureau of Statistics data on labour intensity by industry and the ABS data on female employment by industry, to estimate the “female employment multiplier” for each industry. The results are quite stark.

Every million dollars the government spends on education would create 10.6 direct jobs for women and 4.3 direct jobs for men. And every million dollars they spend on construction would create around 0.2 jobs for women and 1 job for men. 

The same pattern in education is present for health, accommodation, hospitality and entertainment. Per million dollars spent not only do these industries create more jobs for women than men, but they also create more jobs for men than construction does.

If the government wanted to maximise job creation, it would focus its stimulus spending on the most labour-intensive industries. It’s not a complicated idea, it just means that a larger share of the money spent goes to direct job creation and a smaller share gets spent on heavy machinery or imported materials. But there is no evidence that the government wants to maximise the number of people who get employed by its various stimulus packages. 

Back in the depression of the 1930s, men accounted for around 70% of the paid workforce and activities like road building, bridge building and tunnel building were far more labour intensive than they are today. But despite the fact Australia’s labour force and construction techniques have changed radically, it seems the Coalition’s approach to job creation has barely changed at all.

Hundreds of thousands of men and women have lost their jobs in retail, tourism, education and hospitality. International tourism is unlikely to restart until at least next year. Likewise, travel for foreign students. Even if the construction industry were labour intensive – which it’s not – it would take years for those who have lost their jobs in the services sector to acquire the skills required to be of use on a modern construction site. 

Construction has an important role to play in our society. If we want more schools, hospitals or public transport, then all of those assets will need to be built by the workers in our construction industry. But it is absurd for the Coalition to pretend that if it is helping our tradies it is helping the economy.

Last week’s announcement of $688m to stimulate new home construction and renovations was rightly mocked for providing no help to those who can’t afford to take on an extra $150,000 debt right now. But the fundamental problem with the policy is its pathetic size and appalling targeting. As the government prepares to withdraw the jobkeeper program, it needs to start rolling out tens of billions of dollars’ worth of industry-specific support aimed at the industries that can employ the largest number of unemployed people.There are currently more than 820,000 unemployed people in Australia and a further 1.8 million underemployed people. When jobkeeper ends, those numbers will surge. 

Even before Covid-19, women in Australia were more likely to miss out on sick pay, holiday pay, job security and tax concessions for their superannuation than men. And since the crisis they have been more likely to lose their hours, or their jobs, than men. There is absolutely no need for women to miss out on the benefits of stimulus spending as well. That decision is entirely up to government. People have to draw the line somewhere. 

Richard Denniss is chief economist at independent thinktank The Australia Institute

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