The federal Labor government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard filed a submission to Fair Work Australia (FWA) on November18, which backed away from its year-long commitment to support the Australian Services Union (ASU) application for an Equal Remuneration Order for social and community sector and disability workers.
The government said it supported the principle of pay equity, and agreed community sector workers were underpaid, but its submission argued against granting equal pay to this historically exploited section of the workforce because of budget constraints.
This outraged the ASU, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, and groups such as the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) and the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS).
Victorian ASU assistant secretary Lisa Darmanin said on November 23: “We knew the Equal Pay case would cost money for the Federal Government, but it is as if they have just come to the realisation on what it will all cost.
“It is time to pay women in the social and community services sector what they are worth. The federal government makes choices everyday about funding, and if it is serious about wanting to look after women in the workplace, this Equal Pay case must be a priority, not just lip service.”
Dr Cassandra Goldie, ACOSS CEO, said on November 19: “This wage claim before Fair Work Australia is about justice for community workers, around 85% of whom are women.
“While the Government previously recognised that paying women less for doing the same work is unjust, it seems to be making excuses for not fixing the problem.
“Yet the cost of not addressing this pay inequity will be felt in services that cannot continue because community organisations cannot attract and retain the vital staff they need. This is the price if we don’t achieve pay equity in this sector.
“ACOSS is concerned by the Commonwealth’s suggestion in its submission that funding a pay rise would likely come at the expense of other Government services.
“Community sector workers, who provide support to some of the most disadvantaged people, live on wages that will render them in need of the very services they provide in their retirement.
“We think it is unreasonable and unfair to threaten other services at the cost of paying community sector workers decent wages.
“This is an attempt by the Government to distance itself from the responsibility for funding higher wages. It fails to acknowledge the key role that Australian governments have played in the growing gap in community sector wages through routine underfunding of this important sector.”
Melanie Fernandez, convener of WEL NSW said: “Australia’s first female Prime Minister is reneging on delivering her government’s first major feminist commitment — equal pay for women. To say we’re disappointed would be putting it mildly.
“Equal pay is a core feminist principle, and one which we expect the government to keep its promise on. It was first awarded to women in 1972. Almost 40 years later it still isn’t a reality.”
Kathleen Swinbourne, WEL NSW’s coordinator, said: “The gender pay gap is widening, placing more stress on women who have to support themselves and their families.
“It’s time for the Government to take a stand in support of fairness, and show that they truly believe that women workers are equal to men.”
Gillard’s response was to say she had been misunderstood and that the government submission was simply to inform FWA of the budgetary costs of awarding equal pay. The government argued that the cost would have to come through cuts to other government-funded services.
ASU workplace delegate Margaret Gleeson told Green Left Weekly: “I don’t think any community workers are going to be convinced by Gillard’s protestations.
“If the government supports equal pay in the community sector then it has to support its implementation. If it’s not committed to full funding of the organisations who employ workers then its support of the principles of pay equity just doesn’t ring true.”
The government signed an agreement with the ASU a year ago to support the union’s claim, but now its submission is white-anting the process.
The government argued that the FWA should not take into account comparison with workers in the public sector, as the pay differential is not gender-based. It argues that the higher wages (up to 50%) in the public sector are a result of enterprise bargaining.
However, the ASU said the social and community sector’s inability to bargain around matters such as wages (because employers are dependent on government funding) meant an Equal Remuneration Order was needed to achieve wage justice.
Most workers in the sector are in small workplaces not covered by agreements. Even where agreements are in place, rates of pay are usually in line with awards. Government funding has eroded to the stage where it does not even cover award rates of pay.
But the worst argument in the government submission relates to “budget implications”. The government has said the FWA must consider the government’s fiscal strategy to return the budget to surplus before deciding on pay equity.
Gleeson said: “In contracting out essential community services to an underpaid workforce in the community sector, governments have been riding on the backs of low-paid women workers.
“Over 60% of community workers have tertiary qualifications, yet earn less than average weekly earnings. If they did the same job in the public service the pay rates would be 30% to 50% higher. I would say these workers have been doing their bit for ‘fiscal responsibility’ for far too long
“The government is arguing a ‘capacity to pay’ line. This is a bosses’ argument.
“Workers in the sector are angry at what they perceive as a sell out. Lip service to pay equity by Gillard and her crew is no longer enough. What we want is implementation of wage justice. The mood in workplaces and ASU offices around the country is that we are prepared to campaign hard for this.”
As GLW went to print, the ASU was continuing to negotiate with Gillard and demanding that the sections of the government submission to the FWA that undermine the equal pay claim be removed. The ASU was surveying its members to see if there is support for industrial action.