There has been intense activity in 2011 around the social and community services pay equity wage case pursued by the Australian Services Union (ASU) and four other unions.
The claim, which was lodged in March 2010, is rapidly approaching its conclusion.
Since late January 2011, there has been:
• A new round of site visits, during which members of the Fair Work Australia tribunal hearing the case visited public sector workplaces to see how the work compared to that in the non-government sector.
• Two weeks of hearings held before the full bench of Fair Work tribunal. Witnesses from across Australia gave evidence in support of the case.
• Preparation and filing of final written submissions by the unions that brought the case.
Over the next month, governments, employer groups and other parties must also file their final written submissions.
Over April 11 and 12 in Melbourne, the final oral submissions will be heard by the tribunal.
During the two weeks of hearings, 20 union witnesses were cross-examined by employer and government lawyers. But a further 56 witnesses, mainly workers from the social, community and disability services industry, were not cross-examined — which means their evidence has been accepted by the tribunal.
In all, the union equal pay case relies on 130 formal “exhibits”, consisting of 76 witness statements and 54 other documents tendered in support, plus written submissions.
The tribunal has sat on 13 days to consider the case and the transcript occupies 5760 paragraphs already.
In addition, the tribunal members visited 25 workplaces in four states over a further 13 days to see the work and talk to the workers involved in performing these essential services.
If anything is clear from this case, it is that employees in the non-government social, community and disability services sector are amazingly dedicated and committed employees, doing excellent work for little reward and often under difficult circumstances.
They definitely deserve a pay rise.
It is also clear that the equal pay case, which relies on new provisions in the Fair Work Act introduced by the federal Labor government, could not be run at all without the existence of unions and union members to fund and coordinate the case.
And while lawyers, union advocates and officials may have been at the centre of the legal proceedings, nothing could have been achieved without members of the ASU and other unionists in the social and community services sector who were willing to assist by making witness statements, providing information and hosting visits to their workplaces.
The campaign support, activism and unity of union members has been vital. It will continue to be important to ensure the result is properly funded and resourced.
The Fair Work Tribunal may not make its decision on the case until July, but the ASU is intensifying its campaign to secure extra funding for the social and community sector in anticipation of a successful outcome.
Most employers in the social and community services sector are not-for-profit, non-government organisations. They are wholly or mostly reliant on federal and state government funding to run services for young people, victims of domestic violence, the aged, people with disability, the homeless and other excluded sectors of society.
Almost two years ago, the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission (QIRC) awarded pay rises averaging about 25% for front line social and community sector workers.
In response to the QIRC ruling, the Queensland government budgeted a four-year funding increase of $414 million. However, this has not led to full funding across the industry.
Under cross-examination in the national equal pay case, Mission Australia was forced to admit that it had “invested” $505,896 of the extra funding it received in “Queensland services” instead of wages for its employees.
If governments do not raise funding to cover wages rises it will amount to a decision to cut funding for services.
The funding shortfall in Queensland has already led to forced redundancies and service cuts.
The ASU has called a National Day of Action for June 8 to call on federal and state governments to fully fund the wages outcomes of the pay equity case.
[For more details on the campaign visit asumembers.org.au/equalpay]