Peter Strong: Why is the safety and welfare of self-employed women being ignored?

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The National Summit on Women’s Safety was held this week and it is a necessary event with the right focus – except self-employed women are, for some reason, invisible as a group. Have they been discounted as worthy of support or consideration?

The summit comes after much focus on women’s safety, following the release of the worthy Respect@Work report in March 2020 and subsequent legislation, as well as a series of awful events in Parliament House in Canberra. The report, completed by Kate Jenkins from the Australian Human Rights Commission, provided a case for cultural and legal change in workplaces to stop sexual harassment.

The report was strongly supported in the small business community as it was generally agreed that changing workplace culture is needed. The only concern was that a small business person should, and can only be, responsible for what they can control; they should not be held responsible and punished for the actions of another person.

But within this debate, do all groups of women get due consideration? Will the outcomes of the summit and the Respect@Work report favour those with the biggest voice and ignore others?

It is a fact that the safety and welfare of the self-employed female is often ignored.

The best example of the double standards for safety of women comes from the bullying of self-employed women and other women by some in the union movement. We know most unions, the majority, do not engage in physical threats or intimidation. It is hard to imagine bullying being a culture with the health union for example. 

But there are a few unions representatives who feel it is okay to harass, bully, abuse and intimidate small business owners, particularly women small business owners, who won’t tug the forelock to big bullying unions.

This needs to be called out time and time again by the leadership of unions, including the ACTU, the CFMEU, the TWU, the CPSU. Furthermore, we need a help line for those abused by unions to safely register their concern and have it dealt with in a professional manner.

If that means the abused person being paid damages so that they can sell their business as it will be under constant attack by a union, then so be it.

This has been an issue for some time.

At a press club debate in May 2017 between Ged Kearney (then President of the ACTU) and Kate Carnell (then Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman), a journalist asked Kearney why business people are terrified of unions if they speak out about their views? Kearney was asked was it okay for big boofy blokes “from unions to stand around shops in a menacing manner?” and she replied, “community will respond in any way they like”.

I was shocked by that reply as Kearney — who is now an MP — is a fine, considered person with reasonable views. But why not condemn the bullying of women? Is it okay if a union person does the bullying?

In another case, Kate Carnell as Ombudsman was tasked by the government to investigate the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal issues and, as a result of consultations, she was met with verbal and physical intimidation.

As Carnell reported on The Drum on ABC in 2021, she needed to consult with the TWU so she organised a meeting and “[the head of the TWU in NSW] brought ten big blokes in singlets with him and they just bullied. They used words that you wouldn’t use on TV that start with f and c and just yelled at me. I’m pretty hard to intimidate but I was actually shaking after that meeting. And that’s not the only experience I would go through.”

Now that is verbal assault by a man of a woman. Absolutely disgraceful. This is intimidation by a man, probably twice the size of Carnell, who is certainly not a man with courage — a bully at best.

After this was reported on The Drum I waited for social media to go ballistic, for noted feminists to come in hard on that man and that sort of behaviour. But there was nothing, no mention at all. An excuse for the lack of mention is maybe that no feminists saw that episode — although very unlikely.

So why was this ignored? Is it okay for a woman who is seen to be on the right of politics to be abused and threatened? Is it only women of the left or those who may be victims of the so-called right who are worthy of society’s support?

No, it is all women in all situations.

If we are to change culture, and get rid of sexual harassment and abuse, then all our institutions need to be on board and aggressively so. No excuses. No groups who we can turn a blind eye to when they behave badly. Be it political parties, unions, political offices, the media and workplaces — everyone counts.

The fact that the self-employed woman remains a second class citizen when it comes to bullying, domestic violence and other areas of equality is something that must be addressed. 

If an employer, who is female, is a victim of domestic violence there is nothing for her. But if an employee of that woman is a victim, the employer, a woman, will have to pay extra leave and work harder even though she is also a victim. Why the double standard? Why can’t we develop solutions for women that do not punish another group of women?

The solution rests with the welfare sector — the experts. 


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