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Issue #1459      16 June 2010

Equal Pay – Day of Action

Around Australia thousands of women and men rallied and marched in regional centres and capital cities last Thursday (June 10) in support of the Australian Services Union’s (ASU) pay equity test case for community sector workers. The ASU is leading a test case with Fair Work Australia under the new equal remuneration provisions of the Fair Work Act. The theme of the day was: “No more lip service to equal pay.”

Protestors march on Employers First office.(Photos by Anna Pha)

On average Australian women working full-time are still paid 18 percent less than men, and community workers are even more disadvantaged when their wages are compared with those of men doing work of comparable skill and responsibility.

“The pay gap could be as high as 35 percent in the community sector,” Sally McManus, NSW secretary of the ASU told the 2,000 or so people inside Sydney’s Town Hall. Eighty percent of workers in the community sector are female and their wages are low by community standards, reflecting a history of undervaluing and underpaying what has traditionally been seen as “women’s work”. This is totally unacceptable; they carry huge responsibilities, often undertake years of training and study, and undertake important and highly skilled work.

Ms McManus gave a number of examples of the pay inequities. Workers caring for the elderly in their homes or supporting families in crisis are paid less than those packing supermarket shelves or collecting garbage. “It is unacceptable that the pay gap is getting bigger and not smaller.”

Ms McManus said the union, with the support of other unions, was fighting for pay rises of about 25 percent for community sector workers. This would mean an average $100 a week pay increase for the 200,000 people who work in women’s refuges and help migrants, the homeless and those with drug and alcohol addictions.

Government support crucial

Government support is crucial as the community sector is largely reliant on its funding to pay employees’ wages and provide essential services to the community.

As the ASU points out, “Winning the case will prove that these workers are undervalued – but, the case outcome alone will not correct the injustice. Workers need the government to fund the outcome of the case to make equal pay a reality.

“We need the state and federal government to commit to funding. We do not want lip service anymore,” Ms McManus said. If the government does not fund the outcome of the case, equal pay will not be a reality. There is a real danger that jobs and services will be cut to fund wage rises.

Skilled community workers are paid less than those packing supermarket shelves.

Long struggle for equal pay

The Sydney rally was chaired by ASU president Narelle Clay and the Welcome to Country given by Bronwyn Penrith, chairperson from Mudgin-Gal (an Aboriginal women’s organisation) and Darlington Public School Choir.

Following a parade of union banners of more than 20 trade unions present, a short history of the struggle for equal pay and pay equity was presented using large stage screens. The history featured landmark decisions in the determination of women’s pay and the struggles for equal pay – at first for women doing the same work as men and then for work of equal value, commonly referred to as pay equity.

The history commenced with the Harvester Case, when the Arbitration Commission awarded women 54 percent of the wage of men. Men were seen as bread winners with stay-at-home wives and children. By 1985 the average wage rate for women was 85 percent of that of men; it has since slipped backwards closer to 80 percent.

Some of the women who had played a role in the struggle for equal pay came to the stage as their particular roles in the struggle were outlined. The “Pay Up Stars”, as they were called, were warmly welcomed as heroes and role models for todays struggle. Merle Highet in the 1930s, Margaret Jones from the 1940s, Nancy Essex, Audrey McDonald and the work of the Union of Australian Women, through to more contemporary activists Meredith Burgmann, Cathie Bloch, Jennie George, Fran Teirney and a much younger generation of Equal Pay Ambassadors Anita, Tara, Karen, Nadia and Maree.

“Pay Up Stars” Sydney Town Hall.

The large charities and other employers from the big end of town are strongly opposing the pay case. Employers First is leading the attack on community workers and equal pay. The name, Employers First (implying worker’s last), became too much of an embarrassment so in 2008 they changed it to the Australian Federation of Employers and Industries (AFEI). Employers First has a war chest of $1.5 million dedicated to opposing pay equity for community workers. The rally concluded with a march on the Employers First office.

“This is our time. Equal Pay is our fight. Let’s fight like our sisters and brothers before us to win equal pay,” Ms McManus concluded. Kiss and send a campaign postcard to the Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard.

To join the campaign and
Send a Kiss to Julia Gillard,
visit the Pay Up website

Next article – Fight against privatisation of health system

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