How women fought BHP for jobs

June 12, 2015
Two veterans of the Wollongong Jobs For Women campaign: Robynne Murphy and Slobadanka Joncevska. Photo: Peter Boyle.

In a David and Goliath struggle that became known as the “Jobs for Women” campaign, 34 mostly migrant, unemployed, working-class women took on Australia’s largest company, Broken Hill Propriety Limited (BHP).

In a landmark legal and industrial struggle, they sued BHP’s subsidiary, Australian Iron and Steel (AIS) in Port Kembla for sex discrimination because they refused to employ women. After a long, hard struggle over 14 years, the campaign eventually won damages estimated at up to $9 million for more than 700 women who had applied to work at the steelworks.

The campaign began in April 1980 when some women who had applied for jobs at the steelworks realised that while men were getting jobs quite quickly, women weren’t getting jobs at all. So they lodged claims with the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board (ADB), which had been established three years before.

Wollongong then was a man’s town based on sex segregation of industry — mining and metal manufacturing predominated and these jobs were male. Most women’s work was service work — sales assistants, clerical support staff, or in food and clothing manufacturing or education and health.

Anti-Discrimination Commissioner Carmel Niland took up these complaints and in the process discovered that more than 2000 women had been on the waiting list for up to seven years. Most of the women were from migrant communities, so any campaign for jobs for women had to get the support of the migrant communities as well.

Independent investigation

Niland also began an independent investigation into the way the weight handling limitation of 16 kg imposed for women over 18 and young men under 18 by the Factories, Shops and Industries Act was applied in the steelworks to the allocation of jobs. There were no weight limitations for men.

The campaign lasted for 14 years in four clear stages.

The first was the struggle for jobs for women using the ADB. BHP was told in June 1980 of the 31 complaints against AIS, as well as the ADB process of conciliation, and if it failed, the court proceedings before the Equal Opportunity Tribunal. AIS started to hire women and all the complainants were hired over a period from late 1980 until mid-1981.

The second stage began in September 1981 when AIS ceased hiring — “closed their books” — which was a signal that retrenchments were likely. The unions had fought for the gate seniority principle of last in, first out, to protect their members from companies “cherry-picking” who could be sacked — older or injured workers, union militants or job delegates.

However, because of BHP’s discriminatory hiring practices, the women in the Jobs for Women campaign were among the first to go. So a group of 34 women decided to take up a legal case to test the discrimination law for redress and damages.

The anti-discrimination law allowed a group facing the same type of discrimination from the same source to act together —known as representative action. As well, the law allowed for direct and indirect consequences of discrimination to be considered.

The women wanted to work collectively because they were well aware of the pressure and harassment that would be put on any individual.

Legal campaign

They decided on three goals for the legal campaign.

1. They wanted to establish that there was direct discrimination in hiring through the loss of wages.

2. They wanted to take up the consequences of this direct hiring discrimination when retrenchments took place and they all lost their hard-won jobs. This was the indirect discrimination.

3. Once these first two aspects of discrimination were established and damages awarded against BHP by the tribunal, they wanted to take a representative case for all the women who applied for work during the relevant period of BHP discrimination, from June 1977 when the anti-discrimination law came into effect, to September 1981 when AIS stopped hiring. This meant the benefits of the case would not be limited to just these 34 women.

The women worked with the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in the preparation for their case. This led to the third struggle the women had to face.

The women needed legal aid to be able to wage the case at all. They applied four times and were knocked back each time for reasons that were not clear nor reasonable.

In some ways the 14-month political campaign to get legal aid became the dominant political fight for the women. They rallied forces to support their campaign for legal aid by speaking to Women and Labour conferences, women’s groups, the ACTU, Trades and Labour Councils and unions, ALP Branches and ALP women’s organisations.

They held benefits, concerts, film screenings and dinners and raised funds to be able to continue the struggle for legal aid and get motions of support for legal aid and the struggle to be sent.

Finally, just before the formal proceedings were due to open and with the women already $2000 in debt, the government’s Advisory Council gave them a one-off grant of $10,000. They finally got legal aid after the tribunal hearings had already started.

BHP's arguments

The main argument put forward by BHP as to why women could not be hired was the weight handling restriction argument and here the study commissioned earlier by Niland played a big role. The study showed that BHP managers and supervisors didn’t know which jobs weight restrictions applied to or where and how it should be applied to either women or young men.

In fact many of the jobs that the women were doing were in areas where they were required to lift heavier weights. As well, women were never told about the weight restriction as a reason for not being eligible for any particular job.

The Tribunal hearing continued over 23 sitting days during 1984 and 1985 and on September 1985 it handed down its decision that all 55 complaints of discrimination were substantiated. BHP immediately appealed the decision.

The Tribunal then considered the question of damages and in October 1986 awarded about $1.4 million to the women on the basis that weight handling restrictions had nothing to do with discrimination but were due to sexist attitudes.

This decision and the amount awarded received enormous media attention.

In May 1988 the Appeal Court dismissed BHP’s application and from September that year the damages began to be paid.

In May 1989, BHP appealed in the High Court against the awarding of maximum damages to eight of the 34 women. This too was rejected by the court in December that year stating, that BHP had discriminated against the eight women employees when it retrenched them on the last on, first off basis. So the indirect impact of discrimination was clearly upheld.

This constituted the fourth stage of the campaign and one that showed the importance of the political campaign. Now the process was almost totally carried out behind closed doors in the legal framework.

This situation dragged on until May 1993, when AIS signed a mediation agreement to settle all outstanding and potential complaints of sex discrimination between June 1, 1977, and September 30, 1981. It was not until February 1994, 14 years after the Jobs for Women campaign began, that this case came to an end.

United movement

This campaign is a wonderful example of how to build a united movement across gender, ethnicity and class lines and to challenge in joint struggle the often unconscious beliefs and assumptions used to justify inequality and exclusion. It also challenged those who fostered and gained from reinforcing such beliefs to their own benefit.

[This article is based on a speech Pat Brewer made at the launch of the book Women of Steel in Thirroul in early May. Pat Brewer is a member of Socialist Alliance in Wollongong.]

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.