... and ain't i a woman?: Equal pay

March 15, 1995

Equal pay

By Kath Gelber

The International Women's Day events last week provided fertile ground for those wishing to look more "woman-friendly". Whether it's because they are facing elections (the ALP and Liberals), or a decline in support (low union membership, especially among women, is threatening the ACTU), those breakfasts, lunches and glass-ceiling-shattering speeches were almost enough to convince us they really care.

The ACTU's pitch was aimed squarely at wooing women members into the unions. Of course, it is a problem that so few women are members of unions. It is also a problem that unions tend not to take on board issues of concern to women, contributing further to the decline in membership. And it is definitely of concern that the ACTU's support for the enterprise bargaining policy of the federal Labor government has resulted in even more problems for women workers.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, as at August 1992, women's earnings were 66.5% of men's. Women are still less than a third of the full-time work force. Working women's over-award payments are less than half those of men, and they receive only 20% of men's overtime earnings.

The Australian work force remains the most sex-segregated of all OECD countries, with women concentrated in the weakest, least strategically important, most geographically diverse and lowest value-added areas of the economy.

The ALP has pushed ahead with enterprise bargaining, chipping away at award conditions. The ACTU has supported this process.

For women workers this has had an overwhelmingly negative impact. Successful enterprise bargaining - from the workers' point of view - requires strong, unionised, strategically placed sections of the work force who can gain increased payments in return for productivity increases.

Women predominate in non-unionised, part-time and casual jobs. Productivity in the kinds of work they perform, such as teaching, nursing or the service sector, is difficult to measure. And despite protestations to the contrary from the ACTU and trades hall women's officers, employers do not consider measures to improve participation of women in the full-time work force, such as workplace child-care, a method of increasing productivity.

These factors were recognised by the Industrial Relations Commission, six months before approving the enterprise bargaining system, when it said, "We cannot predict the extent of the disadvantage female workers will experience if the commission gives its approval of a scheme of enterprise bargaining. We do accept, however, that enterprise bargaining - especially for overaward payments - places at a relative disadvantage those sections of the work force where women predominate."

The whole structure of enterprise bargaining inherently disadvantages the weak in relation to the powerful. The weak are workers, the powerful are the employers. Women workers make up one of the weakest links in the workers' chain.

Now the ACTU wants to address this structural problem with some fiddling within the parameters of the system itself. It wants to mount test cases in the IRC to try to correct the gap between men's and women's wages, focusing on discrimination against women in over-award payments and bonuses.

Any gains from this process would be a step forward. However, on its own this is essentially window-dressing which will do little to change the actual character of the Accord/enterprise bargaining industrial relations system. It is this system which needs to be changed if women workers are really to achieve pay equity.

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