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SDA Report: Challenges of work, family and care for Australia's retail, online retail, warehousing and fast food workers

This report provides information about the work, family and care arrangements of employees in Australia’s retail, fast food and warehousing industries. Through the pandemic, these workers have been recognised for their essential contributions in maintaining safe access to food and other necessities for the community.

Yet this recognition is not reflected in their employment conditions and supports; they remain low paid and lack access to the flexibility arrangements which assist workers in other industries to provide care to children and adults, and to manage work and family commitments.

To explore the challenges of managing work and family experienced by these workers, including their care for children and others, and their employment needs, Australia’s largest private sector union, the SDA, the union for workers in retail, fast food and warehousing, commissioned this research from the Social Policy Research Centre at UNSW.

Information comes from a national survey of SDA members, conducted in early 2021, which explored:

  • workers’ responsibilities to care for children and vulnerable adults;
  • how workers arrange their care responsibilities while they are working; and
  • the challenges arising from employers’ working time practices and Australia’s system of childcare provision.

Findings show that as well as making important economic and social contributions through their paid work, SDA members make valuable contributions through the unpaid labour they provide as parents, and as carers to children and adults in their families and communities. Yet these social and economic contributions are poorly recognised and accommodated in their working lives.

The data shows that:

  • SDA members lack genuine choice about their working times and childcare arrangements and require better support structures, including access to responsive childcare services that recognise their needs, to ensure they have meaningful opportunities to shape their working and caring lives.
  • Industrial relations settings and employer practices are limiting the choices and opportunities available to SDA members. Rostering and pay are shaped too strongly around employers’ agendas of profitability and cost minimisation.
  • The ways work is organised exacerbates difficulties faced by workers needing to organise their work and family lives, and find time for care. This impacts on the children of retail workers, many of whom cannot access early education and have constrained opportunities to fully participate in other aspects of social and community life.

Changes are needed at the level of industrial relations policy, and within employing organisations and local workplaces. Policy and regulatory changes should be aimed at promoting decent pay, job security, predictability of shifts, employees’ control over work times, access to reasonable shift lengths, genuine choices about work days and times, and to ensure workers can make schedule adjustments without fear of repercussions. Changes are also needed in Australia’s childcare system, to improve the affordability, accessibility and suitability of care for low-income workers.

Download the full report

Key findings

SDA members contribute unpaid care work that is essential to their families and communities.

  • 55% of all participants said they regularly provide some form of care to another person, such as care to a child, grandchild, or to an older person, or a person with a disability or long-term health condition.
  • This includes 39% who provide care to a child or young person under 18 (either in or outside their household). The vast majority of those caring for a child were doing so as parents. Indeed, 30% of survey participants were parents with a child under 18.
  • 17% provide regular care to an older person, 10% care for someone with a long-term illness or health condition, and 9% provide regular care to a person with a disability.
  • Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data indicates that 1 in 9 Australians (11%) provide unpaid care to people with disability and older Australians. The equivalent figure among SDA survey respondents is 24%.

Many SDA members work and care in challenging circumstances.

  • 25% of participants who are parents with a child under 18 said they are sole parents. This is high: sole parent families comprise around 14% of families in Australia.
  • 16% of parents with a child under 18 said they have a child with a disability or additional needs. While measured differently, ABS data indicates that in 2018, 7.7% of children under 15 had a disability.
  • 13% of survey participants aged 25 or under were young carers; that is, they are young people who provide regular care to an older person or adult with a disability or long-term health condition. This is much higher than in the wider population: the 2016 Census found that among people aged 15 to 24, 5.6% were young carers.

The survey shows the needs of retail workers, including parents and carers, are being left unmet by employers and employment regulations, and by Australia’s childcare system.

  • Many SDA members have contributed years, even decades of service to their employers. Yet their working time arrangements continue to be characterised by short, fluctuating hours, and precarious shifts. This impacts on mental health, constrains opportunities to provide care, and limits opportunities for families to spend time together.

Most parents use informal arrangements to care for their children while they are working. Among parents of children aged 12 or under, 9% used formal care services only, half (49%) used informal care only, and 42% used a combination of both.

  • Care by a grandparent is particularly important. It enables mothers in particular to extend their working hours and earnings, and to reduce or avoid the costs of formal care. Among mothers with a child aged 12 or under, 30% used grandparent care each week and a further 10% used it most weeks. However, access to grandparent care cannot be assumed: over a third of mothers with a child under 12 (36%) did not report using grandparent care.
  • As well as drawing on grandparent care, many SDA members are themselves providing care as grandparents. Among those aged over 50, 17% were providing regular unpaid care to a grandchild.
  • Young workers also provide care. Among those aged 20 or under, 14% provided regular unpaid care for a younger sibling.
  • Use of early education and care services (ECEC) or formal childcare is most common among families with a pre-school aged child, however, it is usually used in combination with informal arrangements.
  • Comments from workers highlight the ways some families have to make extraordinary efforts to co-ordinate family schedules around work and care, in ways that avoid or reduce their use of formal paid childcare or use of non-parental care. This is largely due to the cost of childcare, including the charging of fees in blocks which do not correspond well with working hours, and because childcare hours do not accommodate the non-standard hours which are prevalent in retail.
  • A commonly mentioned challenge is the need to pay for a full day of long day care, even if a child attends only for short hours.
  • Difficulties accessing childcare are resulting in inequitable participation in early education among children of SDA members. This can have enduring consequences for children’s learning. Nationally, 95% of children participate in a preschool program for 15 hours per week before they start school. Among surveyed parents with a child starting school in 2022, 72% said their child attended at least 15 hours of long day care, preschool, or kindergarten, where they might receive a preschool education. 10% said they attended but for less than 15 hours, 12% did not attend, and 5% were unsure about attendance or hours.

Even where SDA members use ECEC services, they experience difficulties.

  • For those with a child 5 or under, the most common childcare difficulties were affording childcare (reported by 63% of participants engaged with formal services); coordinating work times with childcare (reported by 46% of those using formal services); finding childcare that fits work schedules (35%); and finding childcare at short notice (35%).
  • For those with a primary school-aged child, the most common childcare difficulties were coordinating worktime with childcare (38%), affording childcare (37%) and finding childcare during the holidays (36%).
  • Where childcare arrangements were perceived to work well, success was attributed to informal care arrangements, ability to co-ordinate work times within the family, and the predictability of shifts.

Difficulties accessing suitable childcare are reducing labour supply, and particularly impacting on the participation of women in the workforce and their working hours. This impacts on family earnings.

  • Among parents with a child aged 12 or under, 43% of mothers and 35% of fathers reported wanting to work more hours, but access to suitable childcare is a barrier: 35% of mothers and 27% of fathers agreed with the statement “If I had suitable childcare, I would work more hours”.
  • A third of parents with a child 12 or under (33%) said they turn down extra shifts because they won’t earn much more after tax and childcare costs.

Paid parental leave helps support parents around the time of childbirth or adoption of a child, and when a child is very young. SDA members with a child aged 5 or under were asked about whether they had taken parental leave for their most recent birth, and the type of leave they used.

  • The Australian Government’s provision of Parental Leave Pay is the most important source of support for SDA members. Parental Leave Pay was the most common form of leave taken, reported by 72% of mothers and 34% of fathers with a child under 5. Although eligibility and the reasons for non-use are not clear from the data, the information nonetheless indicates that many SDA members have missed out.

Overall, 19% of parents of young children said they had not accessed any paid or unpaid leave for their last birth. This was higher for fathers (35%) than mothers (14%).

  • Among parents with a child under 5, 19% of mothers and 47% of fathers had not received any paid leave to support their most recent birth.
  • Comments on parental leave and transitioning back to work showed mothers faced challenges securing appropriate conditions when returning to work, and also felt they were missing important milestones in their children’s lives.
  • SDA members described very poor working time security. Poor working time security affects all workers, and is very adverse for parents and others with caring responsibilities, impacting on their access to formal and informal care.
  • Only two in five (40%) of participants work the same shifts each week ‘all of the time’. This is higher for fathers (48%) and lower for mothers (37%).
  • Although casual work is most unstable, many of those employed permanently report that their employment does not provide stable, predictable hours

One in ten parents (10%) said they do not have regular work days.

Most workers report that rosters are set by a manager who they have regular contact with. Those who are satisfied with their working times frequently attribute this to ‘luck’ in having a good manager, rather than systemic practice. Workers described substantial challenges, including:

  • working times which emphasise business priorities and do not accommodate
  • personal needs and circumstances. These affect everyone but make life particularly difficult for workers with complex care responsibilities;
  • low hours, short shifts and insecurity, contributing to underemployment and financial difficulties and stress.
  • mismatch between working times and childcare availability;
  • changing schedules, often at short notice and without adequate communication from employers;
  • repercussions and being penalised, including loss of hours, when workers refuse shifts or seek to change them.

Rostering practices contribute to financial difficulties in low-income families, make it difficult for families to access childcare, and make it difficult for families to spend time together. Rostering practices also prevent workers from working more hours. Employers’ rostering practices add to parents’ unpaid workload. Among those with a child aged 12 or under:

  • 68% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “When I get my roster, I have to check it fits with the family’s childcare arrangements”.
  • 69% agreed their work times affect when other family members can work.
  • 62% said they find it stressful to organise childcare around work times.

Rostering also impacts on family stress and the mental health of the worker and members of their family:

  • Of those with a child 12 or under, 37% of mothers and 42% of fathers agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “The way I am rostered to work impacts on my mental health”.
  • 63% of parents with a child aged 12 or under agreed or strongly agreed that they worry about what’s happening with their children whilst working (69% of mothers and 57% of fathers).
  • Among mothers with a child below school age, those using formal childcare services were less likely to worry about their children compared with others, underlining the importance of formal childcare for alleviating maternal stress.

Many workers find that low pay makes it difficult to meet the needs of their families.

  • 55% of respondents say they live in households with post-tax income of less than $1000 per week. 32% of couple parents and 80% of sole parents live in households with incomes under $1000.
  • A substantial proportion of parents caring for children find their wages are too low to meet their needs. 46% of parents in couple relationships and 56% of sole parents disagreed or strongly disagreed that they are satisfied with their take home pay.
  • Many find they work fewer hours than they need. Only 20% of casuals agreed (or strongly agreed) that they work enough hours to make a living, as was the case for 29% of those employed on a permanent part-time basis. Problematically, only 57% of permanent full-time employees said they work enough hours to make a living, reflecting the low hourly rates received.
  • Half of participants agreed that they rely on penalty rates to make a living (50%). This was not restricted to casuals, 53% of permanent part-time workers and 50% of those with permanent full-time hours said this was the case.
  • Around a third of parents agreed with the statement “I turn down extra shifts because I won’t earn much more after tax and childcare costs”.
  • Parents commented on difficulties of living on low incomes. They described trying to work hours that enabled them to contain childcare costs. Pay was seen as low given the nature and complexity of the work.
  • While a quarter of participants (26%) were unsure about the adequacy of their retirement savings, around half (51%) disagreed with the statement “I expect to have enough superannuation when I retire”, and only 23% agreed.
  • Mothers’ expectations of retirement savings are particularly low: only 18% of mothers with a child under 18 agreed they would have enough superannuation when they retire.

The research demonstrates that formal child care options and industrial relations regulations are not meeting the work and family needs of SDA members. In particular, rostering arrangements and low pay are impeding the ability of workers to organise the time needed to provide care for their children, extended families and communities. This is affecting children’s access to early education and opportunities to participate in extra-curricular activities.

Reform is needed to improve working time arrangements in retail, fast food and warehousing industries, so that SDA members have control over their working hours and have predictable shifts so they can organise care and other aspects of their lives. Better job security and pay are also needed, to support all workers to fulfill their care responsibilities, and to enable families to engage with formal care services.

Changes are also needed to ensure child care is available to SDA members in ways that are affordable and suitable for their working hours. Childcare reform should be oriented around principles of children’s universal rights to early education and care, to enable access for every child regardless of parents’ incomes or employment arrangements.

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