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Issue #1458      9 June 2010

Pay up!
No more lip service to equal pay!

This Thursday, June 10 at 11 am, community workers and their supporters will be taking actions across Australia as part of a national campaign in support of Equal Pay for Equal Work.

This is an opportunity for the labour movement, and left and progressive organisations to mobilise and place class firmly back on the agenda of the women’s movement.

The Rudd government and their predecessors have paid lip service to the concept of equal pay. While they give a nod of approval to a series of enquiries and decisions acknowledging the inequities in pay and conditions in female dominated industries, they do nothing to change this situation.

Long history of struggle for equal pay

In 1857 women workers in New York, employed in the clothing and textile Industries took to the streets to demand better wages and conditions. Fifty-one years later, 15,000 women marched in New York to demand better wages and an end to child labour, this was the inspiration for International Women’s Day.

In Australia, the Equal Pay for Equal Work case was won in 1969 and the process of phasing in equal pay for men and women doing the same work began. This was followed by the Equal Pay for Equal Work of Equal Value case in 1972 which meant that different jobs of the same worth should be paid at the same rate. Both these decisions were won after decades of struggle by the labour and women’s movements. Even these landmark decisions did not fully deliver equal pay for equal work to the majority of women workers.

International Women’s Year in 1975 and a new wave of the women’s movement saw some progress made in changing sexist attitudes and the outlawing of discrimination on the basis of sex. Schools adopted non-sexist curricula and girls were encouraged to study maths and science and consider taking up traditionally male apprenticeships and professions. The ACTU in 1977 adopted the Working Women’s Charter and trade unions gave more attention to childcare and migrant women, in particular, outworkers. Some progress was made in changing attitudes towards women and narrowing the wage gap during the 1970s and ‘80s.


Successive governments over the past 25 years have curbed trade union rights, in particular the right to organise and reduced the ability of workers to negotiate collectively with their employer.

Under the Accord between the ACTU and Hawke Labor government in the 1980s Labor promised to increase the social wage – health, social welfare, housing, transport, and improved skills in return for wage restraint by the unions. It set back women workers in terms of their wages and conditions. The only social benefit was Medicare which had already been promised regardless of any Accord.

The Keating Labor government began the process of winding back the centralised award system which gave the wages and working conditions of low paid workers in particular a certain level of protection. It introduced enterprise bargaining agreements (EBAs) with the trading off of award conditions for a few dollars that were quickly eroded by inflation. It resulted in the disenfranchisement of women workers. Female dominated Industries often lacked the ability to negotiate EBAs and were left with declining award protection.

The election of the Howard government and the implementation of WorkChoices brought a new low for women workers, with most minimum protections stripped away and full exposure to the exploitation of “market forces”, many women became the victims of AWAs. It further deregulated the labour market and strengthened the hand of employers. Women’s average weekly earnings as a percentage of men’s fell from 66 percent to 64.5 percent during the Howard years.

The election of the Rudd government raised many expectations amongst workers, with the promise to repeal Work Choices. While the phasing out of individual contracts (AWAs) is a positive and welcome step, the introduction of Fair Work Australia has still seen many low paid women find themselves worse off with the transition from state awards to a stripped back minimum conditions. Migrant, Aboriginal and young women remain the lowest paid in the community, many not even paid the bare minimum award rates.

Women’s average ordinary time earnings are now 60 percent of those of men. In 2010, the wage rate of an average full-time female worker is 17 percent less than that of a full-time male worker in a male dominated industry.

Caring work underpaid

Women are still predominantly found in lower paid but not necessarily less skilled work than men in what remains a relatively highly segregated workforce.

Wages in industries and occupations dominated by women still tend to be much lower than those in male-dominated fields with equivalent skills and qualifications. Women are also found in the lowest paid jobs, such as cleaners, hotel workers, shop assistants and in call centres.

Women still tend to be predominant in the caring professions (what used to be called “women’s work”) – health, education, aged care, community sector and childcare. This reflects the low value our society places on human care and nurturing in comparison to more profit-driven, male-dominated occupations.

Weaker bargaining power

The industries where women are the majority of the workforce often lack the bargaining power needed for workers to negotiate collective improvements in their wages and conditions. They are less likely to be unionised, tend to change jobs more often and have difficulties meeting family responsibilities and unpredictable hours of work.

The employer maybe a local community, a contractor for government or business. Outworkers, in particular, are amongst the most highly exploited and underpaid of all. There is often no system of over award wages and benefits and workers are reliant on the award – if they are lucky enough to be paid that minimum rate. A larger number of workers in these industries are employed as casual and part-timers which adds up to workers accruing less benefits.

A larger percentage of these workplaces are non-union or have a higher percentage of non union workers, the difference in pay between unionists and non-union can be 27%.

Feminisation of poverty

Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elisabeth Broderick describes poverty in Australia as having a feminine face. She said, “poverty should not be the reward of a lifetime of caring for others”.

Older woman are worse off and more likely to be locked into poverty as a result of a fragmented working life, unpaid work and a lifetime of work as carers.

The majority of part-time and casual workers are women, and on average a female worker will contribute less than half her male counterpart in superannuation payments during her working life and can expect in the future to retire with $150,000 compared to $300,000 for a male worker.

A high percentage of sole parents are women, who battle for survival in precarious low paid employment or struggle on punitively low social welfare payments.

A way forward

The Equal Pay case in QLD provides the unions, the community, women’s organisations, and progressive political groups an ideal focus to build alliances and to build a broad campaign that can pressure the Rudd Government to support extra funding to improve the community sector award.

Equal work for Equal Pay can become a reality for all workers when our movement is able to win back our rights to organise.  

Next article – Culture & Life – Mega sport and mega pain

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