During the global pandemic, women- especially mothers of young children- benefited from the shift to teleworking. Many firms tapped into this productive labour force by incentivising remote work. For instance, CBD firms reimbursed internet, office furniture in Perth, and IT expenses of workers who furnished their home offices. However, it may not suffice, and a policy push might be needed to truly reap the benefits of remote working in the rest of WA.
Rising Inequality in WA
Nearly 72% of WA workers are engaged in service industries, but the largest contributor to the gross state product is mining, accounting for 36% of the gross value added. Additionally, WA clocked the highest per capita GDP of $119,861, nearly 1.5 times the national average. However, according to the Treasury Department (WA), WA also has the second-highest unemployment rate at 8.3%, next only to Queensland. Connecting the dots reveals a rising inequality in employment opportunities and income. Treasury records show WA has the highest inequality in Australia, with a Gini coefficient of 0.36 (on a scale of 0 to 1, 1 being the worst).
Missing the WFH bus
Inequality is not restricted to economic terms but spills over to gender-related aspects. There are an estimated 290,100 women of reproductive age in WA, and women have the highest rates of underemployment at over 10% (compared to 6% national average). They are working jobs that underutilise their skills and expertise. It would be a wasted opportunity if they were not incentivised to seek better jobs by facilitating firms and workers to improve the remote working model.
In a survey conducted by a parliamentary committee, women workers expressed their desire to work from home. Specifically, 75% of the workers surveyed said they were equally productive at home and office. They were especially happy about saving commute time. It is a significant saving because Australian workers travel about 67 minutes per day to and from work at the cost of about $50-$60. Further, many employees have accepted jobs that pay lower wages in order to continue working from home.
What steps can be taken?
Given the above analysis, it is clear that WA stands to gain from employing more women in jobs that employ their skills productively. Most women in the Mid West, South West, and the Great Southern regions of WA are engaged in services conducive to remote working – such as education.
Employers can take the following steps to attract more participation from remote women workers:
- Ensure that the task can be performed from home. Adjust the task accordingly to ensure the employee can safely perform it.
- Make sure your workers have the necessary equipment and tools to contribute safely from home. For instance, as mentioned, firms provided computers and software, mobile phones, internet, and office furniture in Perth;
- Systemise the information flow at horizontal and vertical levels, including contingency scenarios;
- Accommodate workers with disabilities accordingly;
- Make arrangements for an employee’s physical and mental welfare;
- Communicate with the employees regarding their duties. Clarify what they can and cannot do with the data and equipment in their possession. Ensure that they are educated about Intellectual Property violations and consequences.
What can the government do?
Success stories from the USA and other OECD nations show that governments provided unemployment benefits, payroll supports, tax benefits for contributors to unemployment insurance, and tax sops to companies adapting WFH. It ensured a relatively seamless transmission to new work culture, with a minimum negative impact on productivity.
While the rest of Australia is adapting to remote working facilities as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, is WA relying too much on its income from primary activities (mining continues to contribute nearly 5% to the state’s gross product)? If that is so, then a case can be made for promoting telework in the service sector as a means to reduce inequality, underemployment among women and promote secular growth.