8 Feb 2012

What Does Equal Pay Mean Now?

By Megan Clement-Couzner
Community workers have just won a long overdue pay rise. It's good news for the mostly female workforce, writes Megan Clement-Couzner

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.

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Posted Wednesday, February 8, 2012 - 12:23

I suppose one of the questions to ask, is, how much do these differences in wages have to do with gender OR with how much that industry contributes to capitalistic interests?

If you think about it, nurses and teaching (especially primary school) are also dominated by females and yet their wages are not as low as community workers, aged care, disability workers. But nursing keeps the workforce strong and supports the health of the society, and large groups within society thus providing healthy workers/order/security and teachers educate and keep children off the hands of mothers who society wants working too, thus supporting large groups within society. Consider the ease with which the police force obtained pay rises...social order/control very important ... baggage handlers, aged care workers...not so much so!!

These " overlooked" industries deal with the unwanteds, with those that have no use to capitalism, this has been a problem more many centuries since the industrial revolution.

Posted Wednesday, February 8, 2012 - 12:35

One other thought:
I STILL don't understand this issue of women's equality in the workforce and equal pay - when the hourly rate was different I think "fair enough" both men and women have that hour taken from their own time, they should get the same amount for that hour...

But the paragraph about the male/female pay gap above, STILL confuses me.

Here is why, tell me what you think...

I live in a small court, there are only 14 houses. Of that population:
* I am the only single parent
* There are 6 homes with a couple/children.
* The rest have no children or grown children and are retired
* Of the families, 5 homes have full-time working fathers and part-time working mothers, with the children attending school.

By the comments I hear from people who are concerned about pay gaps between men and women, I pick up the opinion that these women are disadvantaged and that the system is therefore unfair, oppressive.

BUT, these part-time working mothers with full-time working partners have it better off than everyone else I reckon - I don't think they are disadvantaged at all! They CHOOSE their lifestyle, they have free time, they have wealth, holidays, holiday homes, cleaners, time to take their children to all their sporting and school events...lots of freedom...

I do not understand the problem with this!! I'd like someone to logically point out to me how these women with their unequal pay, are disadvantaged at all...their husbands are the ones getting ripped-off by the system, not these women...their male partners slave away ALL day and sometimes overtime at night, don't see their kids or participate in school or extracurricular activities or have any free-time...I just don't understand this. AND if it is somehow explainable - then I would like THAT sort of disadvantage!!!

Posted Wednesday, February 8, 2012 - 14:08

oh and I should have added, these part-time working women also get to own large and very comfortable homes too...

Posted Wednesday, February 8, 2012 - 18:12

Fight Mumma,

You obviously don't understand what 'equality' means.

Because one woman is in a different situation to another in regards to whether they are a single parent, or have children or whatever is totally irrelivant.

You could spend the rest of your life comparing one human being to another in regards to their salary, relationship and work situation.

The majority of women are in a disadvantaged position in the workplace because of their sex.

That means that some women, no matter how hard they work can never earn as much as their male counterparts.

I think that is a terrible state of affairs.

Posted Wednesday, February 8, 2012 - 18:25

No, misnomer, it still doesn't make sense!

Hourly pay rates are the same for male and female now, so how can you say that "no matter how hard they work can never earn as much as their male counterparts."? How can this be true?

My female neighbours actually work LESS and have MORE, therefore are not disadvantaged. If we measure equality and fairness by more than salary, by status, lifestyle etc, I wonder if the picture would look the same?

This user is a New Matilda supporter. thomasee73
Posted Thursday, February 9, 2012 - 08:43


The logic of equality and fairness are very difficult to sort out - even ignoring the politics. Throw politics into the mix and its gets even more confusing.

So as a global citizen, my response is to throw up my hands and not worry so much about coming to a consistent, principled position that allows me to distinguish between acceptable inequality, minor inequality and moderate inequality of the sort that you describe. I figure that as long as I can recognise extreme inequality and work on reducing that, then there is already plenty of work to do.

On the other hand, when it comes to my own immediate social environment, I'm at a loss. The logic of equality becomes very personal. But I use a similar sort of approach - attack the obvious inequality (already plenty of work) and try to encourage public discussion of apparent and possible inequality - as you are doing. And then hope I get a response.

And now I don't have time to see MY response through to its conclusion. It was more complicated that I initially thought.

Posted Thursday, February 9, 2012 - 14:44

Aged care workers should be next in line for pay rise. Nurses in aged care have over the past 20 years fallen up to 20% behind their public sector colleagues. Aged care is never going to hold on to their nurses while this situation continues. Aged care workers (non nurse carers) can only do so much without nurse supervision. Aged care employers would not agree with the last statement but I think it is true and being found to be the case in situations where there are questions about the standards of care.

Posted Thursday, February 9, 2012 - 20:06

FM, it's an issue of direct and indirect causation. There are some instances of more or less direct discrimination, but as you say, these are becoming rarer.

Indirect causation is trickier. As the author points out, despite the sex based FOUNDATION of the issue, these days the sector discrepancy is more about societies valuation of work not gender. Even within say, law, those that choose say corporate law (mostly men) get more than pro bono criminal lawyers (mostly women). The gender aspect is mostly immaterial. It's economics.

in my opinion, if we want to change the economics, gender should be sidelined as a reason for doing it. the need to pay community workers more should be split from the gender issue. Diddo the issue of pay sacrifices for having children.

Modern feminism seems to struggle with the notion thy the foundation of an issue and the reason for it's perpetuation as well as it's solution can all be different.

Posted Thursday, February 9, 2012 - 22:36

thom and luke,
yes, well said. I think that what doesn't make sense to me is some of what you've raised - especially the politicising of issues, the whole frame of reference seems to change from the reality of people's lives. It develops a life of its own with various interest groups' motivations.

I think that our communities would benefit from many groups banding together rather than as you mention, luke, having fixed and narrow notions on the foundation and perpetuation of these issues. Searching for more meanings, more foundations, for the intricacies would be a great way to go!