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South Australia's reputation as a compassionate and liberal society started in 1848 with the establishment of a Destitute Board, and later the appointment of the first Inspector of Factories, Augusta Zadow, and the contributions of women such as Agnes Milne, and Catherine Helen Spence, whose report on charity in South Australia described the enlightened system operating in South Australia, where the Government accepted prime responsibility for the welfare of those in need.

"It was Mary Lee who forged the link between the women's suffrage campaign and the labour movement that was to prove so crucial to the successful passage of the women's suffrage legislation. At a public meeting in the Adelaide Town Hall on 11 December 1889, she proposed the formation of female trades unions ' in all branches of industry where the sweating system exists', which resulted in the formation of the Working Women's Trades Union at a meeting on 14 January 1890" according to Associate Professor of Women's Studies at the University of Adelaide Susan Magarey in Suffrage and beyond; international feminist perspectives: page 75, edited by Caroline Daley and Melanie Nolan (Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1994)

Some key dates in the early progress to improve working conditions for outworkers are shown. Working conditions and options for South Australian women have improved dramatically since then. However, as recently as 1972 women needed to resign from their positions as teachers in the Education Department upon marriage. They could be re-appointed, but at the most junior level, and with loss of long service leave entitlements. Introduction of legislation relating to equal pay, equal opportunity, sexual harassment in the workplace, has all contributed toward overcoming the 'glass ceiling' barrier that prevented women from achieving greater rewards in the workplace. These and other legislative and workplace reforms, many of which were effected by women as individuals and in organisations, have brought benefits to the vast majority of workers in mainstream employment.

However, things are very different for those people, usually women, working at home as 'Outworkers', also known as 'Sweaters', 'Sweated labour' or 'Pieceworkers'. For these women the situation has not changed very much in over 100 years. Two government enquiries into 'The Sweating System' 100 years apart reveal some unchanging attitudes. One of the groups working in the community on the problems of outworking is the Dale Street Women's Health Centre, whose Outwork Information Kit is part of a training and education program aimed at those who exploit and those who are exploited. For more information see the website of the Fair Work Ombudsman.

With greater emphasis now being placed on enterprise agreements, individual contracts, and home-based work for more traditional 'white collar workers', there could be in future a new set of problems for a new class of outworkers. Erosion of workers' rights could occur within a range of contractual agreements for individual workers. The next ten years will be interesting to observe.

As an inspiration to women, no South Australian could be a better example of a woman's achievements than Dame Roma Mitchell AC CBE who became the first female Governor of South Australia, after a distinguished legal career.


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This page last updated on Monday 29 July 2019



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