On May 16, Fair Work Australia (FWA) released its decision on equal pay for Australia’ s 200,000 community sector workers. This workforce, who provides supports from aged and disability services to childcare, crisis intervention and counselling, is 87% women. Forty years after the 1972 federal ruling that set the principle of equal pay for work of equal value, the FWA decided that these workers earn much less than those doing the same job in the public sector and local government. Media and union officials hail this decision as a landmark.
A landmark it’ s not. But the decision marks a step toward realising the one made 40 years ago for this significant and grossly exploited sector of workers. This case could also punch a big hole in the wall for other unequally paid workers.
But there are a couple of snags. First, FWA claimed to need more evidence that the gaping inequity in pay — up to 80% — is based on gender. It ordered unions, employers and governments to submit more arguments about whether or not, or to what extent, sexism causes this glaring disparity. Hearings about this will take place in early August.
The Gillard government “ welcomed” the FWA’ s decision — declaring its “ commitment” to “ remove the historical barriers to pay equity” — but then refused to commit to funding any pay rises!
The other snag comes from the Australian Services Union (ASU) national officials. They think that the members will be content with wage rises of up to 37%, based on a Queensland pay equity win, rather than on the real gap of up to 80%. Linda White, ASU National Secretary, said: We are hoping that [the federal government] will certainly consider the Queensland rates; we think those rates are fiscally responsible and fair.” ASU members had no say in this.
These are the pitfalls of fighting solely through the courts. Three “ National Days of Action” brought out community sector workers, other unions and the community in droves. But the only place for ASU members to have a voice has been on the street marches — and even then, only for a couple of hours. The workers themselves have not been permitted to control this campaign. If we had, this story would be unfolding differently. Workers — especially women — don’ t walk away from our rights. Equal Pay Now!
Debbie Brennan is an ASU workplace delegate in the Social and Community Sector.