High time to fight for pay equity

September 26, 2009

Equal pay for equal work: it's a pretty straightforward concept. So why is pay equity for women so hard to achieve, and why has the gender pay gap been getting wider?

In May 2009, the Australian Bureau of Statistics calculated that the gap was 17.4% — meaning that on average women earn only 83 cents for every dollar men earn. In some industry sectors, the gap can be as large as 30%.

These statistics were based on workers employed full-time. Taking into account part-time and casual work, the total gap is actually 35%. Over a lifetime, this gap compounds into a big impact on women's earnings.

On top of this, even as more women become governor-generals and government ministers, the pay gap for the mass of working women is widening. This reality was "celebrated" on September 1, which around 180 trade unions and women's organisations in the Equal Pay Alliance marked as "Equal Pay Day".

Equal Pay Day marks the point in the financial year that an Australian woman must work to in order to earn what a man made in the previous financial year. The gap widened in the past year — women now have to work 14 months on average to earn what men earn in a year.

Why is it so? We can rule out educational differences straight away. Only 26% of male workers have tertiary qualifications compared to 31.1% of women, while 36.5% of women are employed as professionals, as against 24.8% of men.

The immediate reasons are easy to find.

Firstly, gender pay inequity is largely caused by the chronic undervaluing of the professions where women workers predominate, such as teaching, childcare, cleaning and nursing. Forty-six percent of women work in education, retail and health and community services, while for men the figure is 20%.

The 2002 State of Working Victoria Project said workplaces with a high proportion of female employees have lower rates of pay.

More than 90% of workplaces with more than two-thirds women workers had average hourly pay of less than $18 per hour for the main job category, while only 72% of workplaces with more than two-thirds men had an hourly rate of less than $18.

Then there's the shape of casual employment, which has been growing as a proportion of total time worked. Women workers in Victoria comprise two-thirds of casual workers, three-quarters of whom are also part-time.

Women workers are also more likely to have more than one job. While only 2% of male workers with dependents had more than one job, 8% of women workers with dependants are in this situation.

The underlying cause of these trends is the 25-year retreat of the trade union movement on wage justice. It began when the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) signed up to the wage-cutting Accord with the Hawke Labor government.

This retreat has coincided with the turn to "labour market deregulation" — producing more billionaires at the top of society and more poverty at the bottom.

As a result, while the union movement has over the years increased lip service to the issue of gender wage equality, it has in reality abandoned the main weapon it had to actually bring it about.

This weapon is industry-wide wage bargaining with specific demands on the issues that most affect women workers — work value, child care, maternity and paternity leave and equal rights in all workplaces, industries and professions.

In the 1970s and early '80s, industry-wide wage campaigns aimed at improving award conditions helped to improve pay equity. However, the Accord and the advent in the early '90s of enterprise bargaining as the basic wage-setting mechanism reduced awards to "safety net" arrangements for workers without bargaining power in the workplace — especially women.

The result is that today women workers' greater dependence on awards is one of the main factors affecting the gender pay gap. State of Working Victoria Project said workplaces with more than two-thirds female employees are also more likely to be covered by awards (67%) than workplaces with more than two-thirds male employees (46.2%).

The gap also widens with the movement towards more individual and performance-based pay systems, promoted in certain industries including the finance sector. For example, in May 2004, the gender pay gap under awards was 22.58%, while under individual contracts the gap was even worse — 31.74%.

The widening of the gap is an extreme example of the general trend under "economic rationalist" wage policy — the trend to the vast increase in income inequality.

The last decision of the Fair Pay Commission to leave the federal minimum wage unchanged this year, along with the ACTU's acceptance of it, will only worsen this shameful state of affairs.

In 1969, working class activist Zelda D'Aprano chained herself to the doors of the Commonwealth Arbitration and Conciliation Commission in Melbourne to draw attention to the equal pay campaign. Forty years later, new Zeldas must step forward to renew the struggle.

[Socialist Alliance member Katie Cherrington is active in the Community and Public Sector Union.]

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