Community workers win equal pay, historic victory

February 3, 2012
Equal pay rally in Sydney, 2010.

In an historic decision, Fair Work Australia (FWA) awarded pay rises of 19-41% to 150,000 mostly female workers in the social and community services sector (SACS) on February 1.

It was the most important equal pay case since equal pay for work of equal value was formally recognised in 1972.

The decision awards an extra 4% rise in loadings, designed to recognise impediments to bargaining in the industry. Workers will also be entitled to any wage review by FWA each year. The pay rises are effective from December 1, to be phased in over eight years.

The Australian Services Union (ASU) lodged the case in March 2010 to address the gender-based undervaluation of the community services sector and deliver long-overdue pay rises.

The ASU submission sought rates of pay equivalent to those won in Queensland in 2009. The federal government supported the case, but did not agree to fund any outcomes.

FWA's interim decision in May last year confirmed SACS workers were underpaid compared to state and local government workers, and “gender has been important in creating the gap”. FWA called for further submissions encouraging parties to hold discussions.

Discussions between the ASU and the federal government resulted in a joint submission to FWA, recommending the pay rises that have now been adopted. The ACT, Queensland and South Australian governments gave unqualified support to the joint submission, as did some employers. Tasmania and other employers gave qualified support.

The submission was opposed by the NSW and Victorian state governments, and several employers and employer groups. Significant opposition came from The Australian Industry Group, Australian Federation of Employers and Industries, Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and Mission Australia.

The joint submission recommended a six-year phase-in, compared with Queensland's three-year phase-in.

The decision for an eight-year phase-in was a direct result of opposition. Victorian and NSW governments and employer groups said they could not commit to the full additional funds.

The federal government has committed $2 billion to fund the pay rises. Campaigns will continue to ensure that all state governments increase funding so services do not have to be cut.

Community services were historically performed as unpaid work by women, traditionally cast as social “carers”. The emotional nature of caring work, unrecognised skills and expectation that it is women’s obligation to do these roles for free meant wages were kept low.

The vulnerability of service users, as with nursing, has hampered the ability of the sector to bargain for higher wages.

Many services previously delivered by government have been outsourced to the community sector. This has led to a growth in the number of workers, and demands for higher levels of accountability. More pressure on issues like homelessness and mental health have led to increasingly complex work.

The community sector needs to offer better wages to keep existing skilled workers and attract new workers. Without competitive wages, the sector struggles with high staff turnover, and employing unqualified people to fill vacancies.

This outcome is not just a victory for workers, but services as well. Low wages have meant experienced and skilled workers leave the industry because they can’t afford to stay, something no industry can afford.

This win is a turning point for women in Australia, said Lisa Darmanin, ASU Victoria and Tasmania assistant branch secretary, who played a leading role in the case.

But the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry said it was “a disturbing outcome that must be quarantined”, before it “spreads” to other female-dominated sectors like retail, hospitality, nursing and teaching.

ASU's 2011 "delegate of the year" and Socialist Alliance member Margaret Gleeson said: “The FWA equal pay decision is certainly an historic legal decision, however it could never have succeeded without the long and concerted campaign on the ground by ASU members.

“The campaign waged across the country was key to gaining the funding commitment from the Commonwealth government, which was critical to the successful outcome. That mobilisation will need to continue to ensure equal pay now becomes a reality.

“In Queensland we are still waiting for the Commonwealth government to bring in a regulation to guarantee the gains of the 2009 decision are enforceable.

“In spite of the limitations of the FWA decision, like the eight-year phase-in, all women have a lot to celebrate this International Women’s Day.”

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