Chapter 2

Current work and care settings in Australia

This chapter provides a high-level overview of the current work and care settings in Australia, detailing who is providing informal care while balancing work responsibilities.
The chapter highlights in particular the informal caring role of parents who care for children, and the disproportionate impact on women of leaving the workforce to undertake unpaid caring roles. It also considers how access to Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) influences outcomes for both working carers and their children.
For the purposes of this report, informal care can be broadly defined as the:
… unpaid care provided to older (65 years and over), dependent or disabled persons by a person with whom they have a social relationship, such as a spouse, parent, child, other relative, neighbour, friend or other non-kin connection. This may involve assistance with core activities such as mobility, self-care and communication or non-core activities such as help with household chores or other practical errands, transport to doctors or social visits, social companionship, emotional guidance or help with arranging professional care.1

A note on data

At the outset, the committee notes evidence to the inquiry which suggests that the number of people identifying as an informal carer is low, which may impact on statistics and therefore, understanding the true extent of the issues. Many Australians may not associate the term ‘carer’ with the unpaid care they provide,2 and informal carers may provide care long before they identify as a carer ‘or consider the relationship to the care recipient as a caring relationship’.3
Like many areas around work and care, the full extent of the problem is unknown due to a lack of data, an issue encountered throughout this inquiry, and which is addressed by the committee later in the report.

Parents who care for children

The 2021 census revealed that there are 5.5 million couple families in Australia, and just over one million sole parents. Of couple families, nearly half—43.7 per cent—had children with over 1.5 million households having young children.4 As of 2021, 2.5 million families had children under the age of 15.5
These are significant numbers, having a direct impact on the nature of work and care for people across Australia. The birth of a child and parental care in early childhood has a significant impact on parents’ working lives, particularly that of women who took ‘88 per cent of all primary carer’s leave’ in 2020–21.6
The value of unpaid child care work has been estimated to be $345 billion, making it ‘Australia’s largest industry’ and almost three times the size of financial and insurance services, the largest industry in the formal economy.7
Women’s workforce participation and unpaid care are ‘highly correlated’, and are linked to child care responsibilities. Following the birth of a child, women disproportionately exit the labour force to provide unpaid care. As children grow, the care imbalance is ‘never fully rectified, with women’s workforce participation remaining lower for all age groups through to retirement age’.8
Professor Sara Charlesworth explained to the committee the impact of having children on working carers, specifically those in shift work and noting the disparity between genders:
What is distinctive about Australian men is that when they have children they increase their hours of work, they don't decrease them. Whereas women tend to stop work, decrease their hours of work and then they get caught in short-hours work.9
Similarly, Ms Alannah Batho observed that parents, particularly of young children, are ‘overstretched and stressed as they attempt to navigate and balance the demands of modern parenting and modern ways of work’.10
The committee notes that research on informal care often distinguishes between the care provided to people living with chronic illness, disability or older people from the unpaid care provided by parents to their children.
For example, information collated by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) does not record a person who looks after a child as being a carer, unless the child has a disability, which the ABS defines as a ‘limitation, restriction or impairment which restricts everyday activities and has lasted, or is likely to last, for at least six months’.11
Again, this lack of data around working carers who care for children impacts on the committee’s capacity, and the ability of many other researchers, to determine the extent of the unpaid care being provided in Australia.
For the purposes of the committee’s inquiry, the committee will consider ‘informal care’ holistically to include all unpaid care, including care that parents provide to their children—especially given it is such a large portion of unpaid care in Australia, and the focus of many income and leave support systems.

Combining care with work

Trying to balance the competing responsibilities of paid employment and informal, unpaid care often limits people’s opportunities to enter and/or progress in the workforce. This has a disproportionate impact on women and greatly impacts on the long-term economic security of working carers.
While many informal carers ‘gain satisfaction from their caring role’, caring obligations can also have significant impact on carers’ participation in employment, long-term financial security, health and wellbeing.12
Ways to improve outcomes for working carers are already known. For example, the Australian Work + Family Policy Roundtable (Roundtable) advocated for ‘decent work’, arguing it ‘lies at the heart of a robust and equitable work/care regime’. The Roundtable stated that decent work provides ‘job security, predictable working time arrangements, paid leave and a living wage—all conditions that make it possible for workers to manager their work and care responsibilities’. However, such circumstances remain unattainable for many working carers, especially those employed part time, many of whom are casuals.13
The Roundtable emphasised that ‘[g]ood jobs—that is, those that are secure, properly paid and with predictable hours—are absolutely fundamental’ in balancing work with care. However, the Roundtable warned that Australia’s work and care architecture is insufficient to achieve these aims, and doesn’t recognise women’s changing engagement with the workforce. The Roundtable said that:
Policy and regulatory settings are not fit for purpose given the make-up of our labour market and the economic challenges Australia faces as we recover from the pandemic.
Changing social norms, high levels of female education, demographic trends and economic conditions mean that Australian women are increasingly engaged in the labour market in a similar pattern to men.14
Other evidence to the inquiry frequently noted how jobs with poor working conditions—particularly jobs with inconsistent hours of work or which offered limited flexibility arrangements—impaired the ability of working carers to balance their various responsibilities.15
For example, those who provide informal care are significantly more likely to earn less than non-carers.16 Carers are often financially disadvantaged due to their caring responsibilities, with ABS data suggesting the median gross income of carers in 2018 was $800 per week, compared to $997 per week for non-carers.17
Ms Emeline Gaske of the Australian Services Union (ASU) made the point that the quality of the employment of their members is related to their caring responsibilities—as ‘those who undertake unpaid care work are more likely to be engaged in part-time, causal or other forms of vulnerable paid employment and contract work’. Ms Gaske continued that:
We see that working part time usually includes a reduction in promotion opportunities because people in part-time roles aren't offered the same job security, predictability and opportunities to progress. In turn, that can limit people's career opportunities. I think we also need changes to our industrial relations laws to make it easier to build a long-term and meaningful career in part-time work, and that will support and encourage people of all genders to be able to take on the caring responsibilities of their loved ones and others in the community and to balance work and caring responsibilities.18
Ms Judith Abbott, Chief Executive Officer of Carers Victoria, drew attention to the fact that unpaid carers ‘may be carers of people with very intensive needs, and they feel like they’re already working’—but they don’t get paid for it. Ms Abbott elaborated that when stakeholders were discussing working carers, to be mindful that:
… when they hear us talking about carers going into work, it's a source of great frustration for them because they feel that they're already working.
That language of paid employment is really important—so we don't accidentally disenfranchise unpaid carers.19
It was also noted by Ms Nicola Street, Director of the Ai Group, that the ‘ability to combine paid employment with ongoing caring responsibilities is an important social and economic objective’. Ms Street continued that:
Access to workforce participation through labour market flexibility involving remote working arrangements, diverse forms of employment and flexible work arrangements are all key parts of the fair work system and that need to continue to ensure we have full workforce participation.20

The impact of care hours on workforce participation

Despite being one of the world’s highest per capita income countries,21 Australia’s productivity level has lagged for several decades. Australia performs poorly on international economic complexity indexes as it is expected to grow slowly over the coming decade, ranking in the bottom half of countries globally.22 Australia’s labour market talent pool is significantly reduced as women are not encouraged and enabled to ‘work additional hours or in managerial ranks’.23
The hours of care provided by informal carers can be a ‘significant burden’ and, for many carers, reduces their hours of work and likelihood of being employed.24 Carers NSW’s 2020 National Carer Survey indicates that a typical informal carer does 27 hours of paid work per week.25
However, balancing a combination of informal care, including unpaid domestic work, with paid employment exposes carers to an increased risk of job insecurity and the associated financial impacts of working less, or working lower paid and/or less secure positions.26
The inverse correlation between the hours of care provided by carers, and their rate of employment, is shown in ABS data (as shown in Figure 2.1). For example:
less than one-third of primary carers (28.6 per cent) who provide over 40 hours of care per week are employed; and
over half of carers (52.8 per cent) who provide 20 hours or less of care per week were employed.27
The Productivity Commission’s submission also observed the significant impact of care hours on paid employment participation with its analysis showing that:
… providing more than 10 hours of care per week significantly reduced a carer’s likelihood of being in paid employment. The effect was largest for carers who provided over 30 hours of care per week; their likelihood of employment was 14.8 percentage points lower than if they were not providing care. The negative effect of caring on employment persisted after people ceased providing care.
Not only does providing care reduce the probability of employment it also reduces the hours that carers worked if employed … employed carers who provided care for 30 or more hours per week worked 3.2 fewer hours on average than people who do not provide care.28

Figure 2.1:  Working age primary carers by time spent caring and labour force status in 2018

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Source: ABS, Disability, ageing and carers, 24 October 2019 (accessed 25 August 2022).
In its report titled ‘Delivering Equity for Women at Work’, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) found that increasing women’s participation in the workforce would have great benefits, including an increase to women’s economic security and respect. The ACTU suggested that:
Another 893,000 women would be in the workforce if they were able to participate in work at the same rate as men. If we could achieve just half that number then women would earn an extra $26 billion each year. Similarly, men earn $472 more each week than women. If that pay gap was cut by half, women would take home an additional $85 billion. Together that would be an $111 billion boost to women’s economic security and our national income.29

Carers’ participation in paid employment

Informal carers often juggle their care responsibilities with paid work in fulltime, part-time or casual capacities. However, carers are significantly less likely to be employed than other Australians, particularly if the carer is older or has more extensive caring obligations.30
While the focus of the committee is on the unpaid care provided by those employed in non-caring roles, it is important to acknowledge that there are ongoing impacts both for people who provide both forms of care, and on the national economy.
Carers Australia told the committee, for example, that the ‘longer a person is a carer, the less likely it is they will participate in the paid labour force’. Findings from the 2021 Carer Wellbeing Survey show that just 47 per cent of carers who had been caring for five years or more were employed, compared with ’61 per cent of those who had been a carer for less than a year.’31
Carers Australia told the committee that, in 2018, ‘60 per cent of carers relied on a government pension or allowance for their personal income.’32
Data from Carers NSW’s 2020 National Carer Survey shows over half of those surveyed (50.7 per cent) experienced at least one form of financial distress in their household in the year prior to completing the survey.33
Carers who participated in the survey, most commonly identified the following impacts of their care responsibilities on their participation in paid employment:
having to cease paid work to care (27.5 per cent of respondents);
needing to reduce working hours (44.5 per cent of respondents); or
having their skills and qualifications become outdated due to time taken out of workforce to care (17.4 per cent of respondents).34
Considering this evidence, Carers Australia suggested three key pillars were ‘needed to effectively support Australians with unpaid care responsibilities to be able to concurrently participate in the paid workforce’, being:
access to more carer inclusive workplaces;
availability of adequate substitute care; and
conditions applying to carer payments.35

Income and retirement

For many people balancing work and care, the financial impacts of caring amount to a lifelong reduction in total earnings, retirement savings and an increased risk of poverty.36
These financial impacts risk reinforcing a cycle of disadvantage as ‘people in lower socio-economic groups generally have a greater risk of poorer health outcomes, including higher rates of illness, disability and death.’37
Over the course of their working lives, carers will lose a mean of over $390 000 in lifetime earnings, and a mean of $175 000 in superannuation, by age 67. The most affected 10 per cent of carers will lose ‘at least $940 000 in lifetime income, and $444 500 in retirement savings.’38
Professor John McCallum, Chief Executive Officer of National Seniors Australia (NSA) summarised how caring roles can impact on superannuation, and on the economy more broadly. Professor McCallum explained that:
… if you miss out on work, you miss out on super. Super is not a welfare benefit. Something else has to be done to cover that base. I don't think it can be done through super, even if we wanted that. I think super is better as it is, and we have to work around that to support people who miss out. Often, people providing care to an adult such as a partner or parent are themselves older and, therefore, at the peak of their working lives in terms of earning capacity and capacity to accumulate super. On leaving work at that time, their financial sacrifice is greater and the punishment is later in life—seriously, and particularly for women. Solutions must be found to this disadvantage, and the loss of individuals to the Australian economy is a real concern.39

The gender divide in work and care

As has been noted throughout the report, there is significant gender divide in the provision of care, with women far more likely than men to be primary and informal carers, while balancing employment—which is often precarious, subject to abrupt changes and does not provide access to adequate leave entitlements.
Further, the lack of affordable child care and the ‘poor financial payoff’ from taking on more paid work has been identified as a major barrier to women participating in paid employment to a greater extent.
While women’s workforce participation has increased significantly in recent decades to 62.2 per cent as of July 2022,40 women still perform the majority of informal care and unpaid domestic work.41
In addition, as noted by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), women remain overrepresented in part-time and casual employment, underrepresented in leadership positions, and are less likely to be in the highest earning positions.42
The Parenthood observed that Australia’s female workforce participation is ‘peculiarly’ low, and in 2021 was ranked by the World Economic Forum as 70th out of 153 countries on this metric. Women represent seven out of 10 primary carers, and the Parenthood told the committee that:
Of women in Australia aged between 25-40 with young children just 56% participate in paid work. Of these 61% work part time, one of the highest rates of part time work of any industrialised country.43
The Parenthood also told the committee that while women and men work a similar number of total hours each week, ‘almost two-thirds of the hours worked by women are unpaid care work’, which contrasts with just over onethird of hours worked for men’.44
In addition, women are much more likely than men to work in lower paid industries, including health, aged care and disability support and retail. In 2022, women are still paid significantly less than their male counterparts, and retire with significantly less superannuation savings.45
Dr Peter Davidson, Principal Adviser to the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), explained to the committee that there is a disproportionate impact on women working part-time, and a far greater proportion of men who work full time. Dr Davidson explained that:
The difference between average male and female full-time earnings is currently 14 per cent, but, if account is taken of the fact that around half of women in paid work are employed part time, that gap would open up to 26 per cent. One in five women in paid employment are employed for less than 20 hours a week in their main job, 27 per cent for 20 to 35 hours a week, and 53 per cent are employed full time, compared to 81 per cent for men.46
Over the previous 50 years, the rate of female participation in the workforce has increased significantly, however it still lags that of men.47 The Roundtable drew the committee’s attention to the ‘growing convergence between the shape of men's and women's labour force participation (see Figure 2.2).48

Figure 2.2:  Share of full-time employment by age and sex, 1990–2019

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Source: Professor Alison Preston, Submission 34, p. 10 (based on ABS data).

Gender pay gap

The WGEA submission pointed to research highlighting that the gender pay gap is exacerbated by periods of unpaid care and the subsequent return by women to part-time employment. The ‘gendered and highly persistent’ nature of career interruptions for women accounted for 20 per cent of the gender pay gap in 2020, with another 11 per cent attributable to part-time employment.49
Australia’s gender pay gap has ‘hovered’ between 13 and 19 per cent over the past two decades, and if the current rate of change persists, Australia will experience a gender pay gap of more than 10 per cent ‘well in to the 2030s.’50 The gap widens:
… significantly for women in the 25 to 44 years age group, the decade they are most likely to have spent time out of the workforce to care for children. As a result of the extra time women spend in unpaid care work, they have fewer promotion opportunities and are less likely than men to hold highly compensated jobs.51
By international standards, Australia lags behind many other countries in international measures of the gender-gap in economic participation and opportunity, and workforce participation for women.
By way of comparison, it has been estimated that if Australian women had the same participation patterns as women in Sweden, considered a world-leader in effective parenting policies, they would:
earn an additional $696 000 over their working life; and
retire with an additional $180 000 in superannuation.52
Increasing women’s access to the labour market is a key opportunity to drive Australia’s productivity growth. According to the Minister for Women, Senator the Hon Katy Gallagher, ‘if the women’s workforce participation rate matched men, we would increase GDP by 8.7 per cent or $353 billion by 2050.’53
A report by Equity Economics, prepared for The Parenthood, explained that these results could be achieved via:
universal health and wellbeing support for parents and children through pregnancy and the early years;
longer paid parental leave periods of one year, to be shared between parents;
free and high quality ECEC for all families; and
flexible and supportive workplaces with universal access to paid carers’ leave for sick children.54

‘Sandwich carers’

Carers Australia noted that men and women can experience very different pressures in providing care, and made the point that women are ‘also more likely to experience both consecutive and concurrent caring pressures’.55
These pressures can involve women interrupting their employment to consecutively care for children, parents, partners and grandchildren, or caring for multiple people at the same time. Carers Australia said this was such a common occurrence that the term ‘sandwich carer’ had been coined—meaning ‘middle-aged people (mostly women) caring for their older parents while also providing care to children or grandchildren’.56
Carers NSW explained the negative impact of sandwich caring, saying:
Providing care to a child or children (<15 years) with additional needs, as well as an ageing family member, can have significant impacts on a carer’s health, wellbeing, social engagement and finances. While many carers experience negative outcomes of caring, the impacts for sandwich carers are amplified.
The Carers NSW 2020 National Carer Survey found that 95.2% of respondents caring for both a parent and child/ren with additional needs were women, and that sandwich carers report lower wellbeing than other carers.57

Early Childhood Education and Care

Nearly all of Australia’s 4.7 million children (aged 0–14) participate in a form of ECEC, and for ‘just under half of all children the usual form of care is likely to be parent only’.58
There are currently just under 1 million families accessing ECEC in Australia.59 Early Childhood Australia (ECA) made clear, however, that it was important ‘that we don’t mistake current options or utilisation of ECEC for choice’. ECA continued that the ‘gains of a universal, affordable early childhood education and care system are amplified when coupled with structures such as paid parental leave that support women's participation in the workforce and ensure economic security’.60

The benefits of ECEC

The committee received evidence of the strong relationship between the quality of early childhood education and care and children’s education outcomes in primary school and later in life. This access to quality ECEC is often adversely impacted by the insecure and unpredictable work engaged in by working carers.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) notes that a ‘range of individual, family and community factors can affect a child’s readiness for school’, including:
… early cognitive ability and temperament [as well as] family characteristics include parenting style, the home learning environment, maternal education and family income. Parenting and the home environment also mediate the relationship between financial disadvantage and school readiness. While community-level variables appear to have a smaller impact on children’s school readiness, child care and preschool attendance have been found to affect early child development.61
Parental care provided in a child’s first 1 000 days of life has a ‘critical’ impact on a child’s ‘attachment style’ and wellbeing. Additionally, ‘the quality of care a child receives in infancy is a powerful determinant of their future wellbeing.’62 Parents who return to work quickly after the birth of a child, or struggle to take time off, can experience adverse health and wellbeing outcomes in both the short and long-term.63

Challenges accessing ECEC

Despite the significance of the care parents provide to their children, the committee received substantial evidence of the challenges parents face to provide child care, particularly when faced with insecure work arrangements. Access to child care is impacted by people who are in part time, casual and/or shift work.
For example, Ms Nicola Street of Ai Group observed that ‘many households are locked out of child care because their working arrangements cannot be accommodated by the locations or operating hours of childcare centres.’64 Ms Street called for change and continued that:
… in certain industries in which you have rotating shift rosters, night-shift work, unplanned overtime or shorter shifts, the need for care at short notice and for shorter periods is one that we appreciate is keenly felt by employees. It's also felt by employers, particularly those in essential industries, where they can't always control the workflow that comes in, depending on the nature of their organisation—for example, emergency services. We think there is a very strong need to align child care with the working hours of people who have irregular working hours.65
Professor Charlesworth made a similar point, suggesting that the ECEC framework was ‘lousy’, but that the rostering systems in retail and ‘indeed in lots of care work is a major problem, because there's no way you can organise care around working hours that are unpredictable and can change at any time.’66
Ms Louise de Plater of the Health Services Union, told the committee that workers were ‘afraid to take time off to attend to their children's needs because, if they say no to a shift, they're worried about not receiving shifts in the future’.67
The cost of child care is also acting as a disincentive to its uptake. Full-time child care costs ‘absorb 18 per cent of household income for a typical Australian couple, compared to the OECD average of 10 per cent.’ The 2017 HILDA Survey reported that over half of parents with children under five struggled with the cost of child care, up from just over a third in 2002.68
Professor Deborah Brennan told the committee that reducing the cost of child care for families ‘is absolutely vital for women being able to increase their employment’.69
Accessing ECEC in rural and regional areas also presents unique challenges. For example, Ms Miranda Edwards of the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC) advised that there are fewer ECEC services in these areas, ‘where there are more children and families existing on or below the poverty line’. Ms Edwards continued that ‘where there are fewer ECEC services there are fewer women with children under five years of age in the workforce,’ explaining that:
Families with unpredictable incomes, casual work or short-term contracts can't take on more work without stable child care but can't book an ongoing or stable childcare place without the guarantee of a wage shift to pay for it. It's a vicious cycle.70

Other issues around work and care settings

Increasing demand for care

Australia’s demand for informal and formal care is increasing. Increasing life expectancies and lower fertility rates in Australia are expected to both increase the size and age of Australia’s population over the next several decades.71
As of mid-2020, 16 per cent of the Australian population was aged over 65 and this is expected to increase to 21 to 23 per cent by 2066.72 This major shift in the age of the population is expected to significantly increase the demand for informal and formal care,73 and reduce the proportion of the population that is of working-age.74
The projected demand and supply of informal carers, up to 2030, is shown in the figure below.

Figure 2.3:  Projected demand and supply of informal carers, 2020–2030


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Source: Deloitte Access Economics, The value of informal care in 2020, May 2020.
Between 2020 and 2030, total demand for informal care is anticipated to increase by 23 per cent, however the supply of informal care is only expected to increase 16 per cent.75
As Australia’s population ages, aggregate labour force participation is expected to decrease, and economic growth is expected to decline.76

Young carers

Young carers are ‘people up to 25 years old’ who provide informal care.77 The caring responsibilities of young carers often go beyond what is expected of people at a young age.78
Many young carers seek to balance unpaid care responsibilities with paid work.79 However, on average, young carers experience poor educational and income outcomes.80
Caring responsibilities can have a significant impact on young carers’ ability to participate in education, and achieve academic results, at a level comparable to their non-carer counterparts. Young carers have reported that:
… their care responsibilities restrict their ability to get to and stay at school, to study and achieve their potential in academic progress, to socialise with friends, participate in extra-curricular activities, and to build a sense of belonging.81

The impact of COVID-19 on carers

It is recognised that COVID-19 had—and continues to have—adverse impacts on working carers, people needing care, and for employees, particularly those in care industries or in precarious or insecure work.
When the availability of formal care was restricted, informal carers took on more, and more complex, caring responsibilities.82 As noted in Carers NSW’s submission, ABS data shows that over a quarter (26.7 per cent) of people provided care to an adult in 2021, compared to the 10.8 per cent of all Australians who were reported as providing care in 2018.83
Evidence suggests the current level of informal care remains above prepandemic levels. Early in the pandemic, over three quarters of parents reported keeping their child at home from school or childcare due to COVID19. In doing so, one in five adults (22 per cent) changed their working hours to facilitate the care of children at home while 39 per cent of employed adults worked from home.84
For many parents in ‘front-line’ roles, including in the health, care, and retail sectors, working from home is not an option.85 For those parents, the availability of child care is vital, and evidence received by the committee shows COVID-19 has compounded critical shortfalls in the ECEC workforce.86
ACOSS summarised the issues faced by women working in care services during the pandemic:
Their work is demanding, complex as well as physically and emotionally exhausting. Caring is emotional labour. Workers typically invest part of themselves in the job and their relationships with service users. The pandemic imposed additional pressures on care services and their workers, through personal illness, staff absences, a higher burden of illness and anxiety among service users, and the extra work associated with protective measures.87

Exacerbation of gender inequities

Gender differences ‘in work and care have continued throughout the COVID19 pandemic’. This has exacerbated underlying inequities in unpaid care and paid work for women who ‘carried the main burden of care work during COVID-19’.88
People employed in casual jobs were hit hardest during the pandemic, and over 50 per cent of people employed in casual positions are women.89 Three out of five jobs lost were held by women.90
Ms Jennifer Wettinger, Assistant Secretary at Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, told the committee that there was decline of almost 500 000 female workers during the initial months of the pandemic, compared to around 400 000 for men.91

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