What Does Equal Pay Mean Now?


Workers in the community sector covered by the Social and Community Services (SACS) Award got a late Christmas present, or a long overdue thank you from the rest of Australia for their hard work over the last 40-odd years. On 1 February, Fair Work Australia awarded community workers pay rises of between 19 and 41 per cent. They got "equal pay".

This landmark case gives us reason to look at the history of equal pay for women in the SACS industry specifically, and in Australia more generally, and ask, what does equal pay mean now, and what’s next?

The case, run primarily by the Australian Services Union (ASU), took almost two years from the first union application to the decision, but workers in the sector have been campaigning for fair pay for much longer. The battle began for the sector 30 years ago, when the Social Welafare Union applied to be declared an industry, and took their case all the way to the High Court. That case was won in 1983 and workers in the SACS industry finally had an industrial award.

The award rates were low, however, and the mostly female workforce often found themselves in a situation where in spite of degrees and many years of experience, they were paid less than people stacking shelves. This won’t be the case for much longer, but why was it the case for so long?

Equal pay, like the silent notion of gender to which it refers, is a notoriously sticky concept. It initially meant removing the disparity in pay between men and women performing the same work. This was entrenched in the 1912 Fruit Picker’s Case, which set women’s wages at 54 per cent of a man’s. Equal pay for equal work was won in 1969.

People quickly realised, however, that this would not remove all pay disparity, as formal industrial classifications often obscured the equal nature of work being performed. Equal pay for equal work was won in 1972 and meant that if women’s work could be shown to be very similar in skill, environment, and training required to male dominated work, an Equal Remuneration Order could be made.

The ABS statistics on the pay gap between men and women from this era shows that the gap narrowed significantly over the period from 1974 to around 1990, then plateaued. It has hovered at around 17 per cent ever since, occasionally narrowing and recently widening. These figures control for men and women’s different work patterns to the extent that they only include full time ordinary hours. If total working hours, including overtime and part-time work are calculated, the gap is more like 35 per cent.

This leaves some tough questions about why we don’t yet have gender equality in the workplace, and how we think about it when our original maxims (equal pay for equal work, then equal pay for comparable work) haven’t taken us all the way.

The individualisation of employment relations in Australia has not helped. With significant exceptions, women tend to be clustered in industries that lack strong unionism and are dominated by smaller employers. They were therefore disproportionately affected by the moves to enterprise bargaining and then individual agreements under successive Labor and Liberal governments.

Moreover, the community workers’ case is the first equal pay case that has been won at a federal level in Australia since 1972. Successive iterations of equal pay principles in federal industrial legislation have set high bars to success. Although 16 cases were taken between 1972 and now, tough provisions that required a male group of employees with which to compare any industry seeking an Equal Remuneration Order meant none were successful. Under WorkChoices applicants were required to prove direct discrimination, making it very difficult to win.

What the SACS case tells us is that the pay equity provisions of the new Fair Work Act can deliver for female dominated industries. To the credit of the Act and those who drafted it, the equal remuneration provisions do not require a male dominated industry comparator when a group of workers make an equal pay claim. This opens up possibilities for future cases, but seeking an Equal Remuneration Order in Australia’s current industrial and political climate still presents challenges.

While employer opposition and lack of unionisation are both problems, perhaps chief among these challenges is the political problem of support for redistribution to low paid industries that don’t make a profit, and how we value them.

When asked to quantify the proportion of the pay gap between community workers in the public and not-for-profit sectors that was based on gender, the ASU said it was the whole lot. They claimed the low pay of community workers was due to the work of the industry being undervalued based on its history of volunteerism and its female workforce.

This feminist argument suggests that the work that keeps communities functioning, the emotional and caring labour of refuge workers and disability carers and aged care assistants, is valued less by an individualised labour market than work that pulls minerals out of the ground or trades shares on the stock market. Essentially, we are still having an argument about whether and how much work matters if it doesn’t create monetary wealth.

Yet it should hardly need to be said that people like Karen Willis AO, of the NSW Rape Crisis Centre and a witness to the case, do work that is both hard and worthwhile. Their services are what make our communities.

Other service industries in Australia have exploded with the outsourcing of work that used to be done in the home. Childcare, for example, is still notoriously underpaid. Cleaning, hospitality and aged care are other industries whose work adds tremendous value to the lives of others, but is very low paid.

So we are still left with the awkward question for employers, government and the rest of us, of how we should value various industries and work, and who is next in line for equal pay. Any or all of these industries could legitimately pursue an Equal Remuneration Order, and the SACS case gives reason to hope they might succeed.

The questions of employer opposition, union capacity, and most of all our political priorities when it comes to the value of work and the inequalities in our labour markets, are the factors that will determine what happens next for gender equity at work.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.