Business groups unhappy with detail of proposed equal opportunity legislation

The business community has criticised a bill requiring companies that receive taxpayer-funded assistance or win government contracts to meet promotion targets for women.

While there is broad support for the intention of the legislation, the plan has been rejected by employer groups as being too harsh. Trade unions and work-life balance advocates, however, say the bill does not go far enough.

The Federal Government Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill was tabled in Parliament last month but a Senate review committee has now released the public submissions made in relation to the bill.

The bill states companies that do not promote women equally will be publicly named and will “not be eligible to compete for contracts under the Commonwealth procurement framework and may not be eligible for Commonwealth grants”.

The changes mean companies will be assigned targets to promote women to management positions and provide them with equal training and promotion opportunities.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) said the planned changes were too punitive to business in its written submission to the Senate committee.

The employer group warned that being “named and shamed” was potentially very damaging for a firm.

“The technical non-compliance by the firm may have little correlation in terms of how the firm is engaged in maintaining or improving gender equity and diversity outcomes,” said the ACCI in its submission.

“If a firm is locked out of government tendering or procurement work and the firm must reduce staff numbers or hours as a direct or indirect consequence (this could be a smaller contractor reliant on the head contractor maintaining its government contract), this may put employees in a worse position and injure their employment situation.”

In contrast, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) was critical of the bill for not going far enough and said the current “light touch regulation” regime was inadequate.

“The ACTU has consistently advocated for the requirement for the legislation to have ‘teeth’ in order to be taken seriously,” said the union in its submission.

The ACTU wants companies to be awarded a certificate for compliance with the legislation, which they will be required to present in order to receive funding.

“We have advocated that a full pyramid of compliance should be developed, including performance improvement notices, enforceable undertakings and punitive measures in cases of repeated and recalcitrant non-compliance,” it said.

Sara Charlesworth, acting director of the Centre for Work + Life at the University of South Australia, told SmartCompany the centre is pleased with a number of aspects of the bill but also has concerns. 

Charlesworth is disappointed that the bill says companies which do not promote women equally will be named and “may” not be eligible for government contracts.

“There is plenty of carrot there but the same stick remains and it is a pretty pathetic stick”, says Charlesworth.

“We have suggested this is beefed up considerably, we think that industry assistance that is made in various areas by the government ought to require companies to have at least a statement of compliance with the legislation or some demonstration that progress has been achieved.”

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