I have written previously on inequality and gender relations in the Australian economy and, in light of ESSA’s upcoming Q&A, I thought I would put an immigration and two-speed economy spin on the topic.
There has been considerable dialogue on whether the two-speed economy is causing inequality – between the east coast and the west, between mining and manufacturing and retail, between the super rich and ‘the rest’. Even Treasurer Wayne Swan has weighed into the debate as a champion of the working-class.
What hasn’t been extensively discussed is how the mining boom is exacerbating the gender pay gap. A 2011 Commsec report showed that men now earn $13,200 more than women, the biggest wage gap in 28 years. This interactive link gives a state-by-state breakdown. Canberra, with its large public service workforce, remains the equal pay capital of Australia whilst mining postcodes have become the most unequal; women in mining earn $35,000 a year less than men.
So why is this occurring? One reason is that people with engineering, mathematical and scientific qualifications are directly benefiting from the booming mining sector. Women tend to be grossly underrepresented in these university degrees and workforces. Writing for New Matilda, Eva Cox argues that it is also an issue of gender norms and workplace culture. Although there is high demand for female labour in the industry the nature of the work is profoundly unattractive to women. Mining jobs are increasingly fly-in fly-out (FIFO) comprising of several days on the job followed by time at home. This is unattractive to anyone with family commitments and as women are overwhelmingly still the primary child-carers and perform the bulk of domestic labour, it is even more unattractive to them. Cox comments on the macho culture of mining sites writing that ‘[t]he long hours and away-from-home male culture FIFO entrenches are unattractive to women and families.’
One female dominant industry that appears to be benefiting from the boom is the sex industry. The number of fly-in fly-out sex workers has risen in correlation with FIFO mining related jobs. The result of a Queensland court case earlier this year, where the judge ruled that motels could not discriminate against sex workers by refusing accommodation, paved the way for further development of this niche industry. However there are now concerns that the booming sex industry has sparked an increase in illegal immigration and sex trafficking to mining postcodes, particularly from South-East Asia.
Clearly the two-speed economy is impacting upon different sectors and groups in different ways. Some, such as sex workers, may be benefiting from the boom. Yet it seems to be increasing the gender wage gap. The Mineral Resource Rent Tax (aka the mining tax) is an attempt to spread the profits of the mining boom more evenly across Australian society. The industry’s negative impact on Australia’s progression towards pay equality is perhaps another argument in support of this policy.
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