Four Jobs for Women leaders in front of the steelworks in the early 1980s. Photo: Jobs for Women Facebook
In Wollongong in the early 1980s, jobs for women were scarce. They either had to wake at dawn to travel to Sydney on the diesel train or they sewed in backyard sweatshops for minimal wages.
That changed when a group of migrant women teamed up with feminists to fight for jobs at BHP’s Port Kembla steelworks.
At the time, there were tens of thousands of well-paid jobs at the steelworks. But BHP refused to employ women. A 14-year struggle ensued as the women took BHP to court and eventually won the right to work.
It was a remarkable result for a small group of women who used Legal Aid to take on the largest company in Australia at the time.
A new book about the campaign, written by the women involved, is about to be released. A feature film is also planned.
The win was a significant legal victory for women, testing the new anti-discrimination laws that had been passed in the wake of the women’s liberation movement.
One of the original participants in the campaign and producer of the film Robynne Murphy said: “While we won against BHP, it showed to the movement how difficult it was for women to access basic laws around our rights and how large corporations can use their position to draw out a legal case.
“The campaign also revealed the archaic and discriminatory safety laws that companies used to hide behind to not employ women. Our campaign exposed these laws and changed these laws to make lifting and manual handling safe for both women and men.”
Migrant women were at the forefront of the campaign, many whose husbands had been recruited by BHP in their hometowns. Some of the women had moved to Australia expecting to be able to find work as easily as their husbands, and were disappointed when they were told women were not employed at the steelworks. The campaign took the view that BHP had a social responsibility to employ everyone, no matter their race or sex.
Murphy said: “From memory, there were around 75 different languages spoken. If there was going to be a campaign around the right to work for women, we knew we had to involve migrant women in that campaign.
“When we started the campaign, we leafleted the dole offices in the area, but we soon realised that most migrant women were not even registered for unemployment benefits. Some of them were married, but even so, in many cases, their husbands had lost work or were on compensation. Many of the women were not encouraged to register for unemployment.
“But of course, the biggest hurdle for all the migrant women was their lack of language. For their husbands who did get work, the men quickly learnt English on the job, however, for many of the women, they were isolated in their homes. No campaign would ever be successful without it reflecting the general population of Wollongong.”
The campaign also reached out to link up with unions and other community groups. It wanted to battle BHP, not the men who were already working at the steelworks. Murphy said these alliances were crucial.
“The main organisers in the campaign had a socialist background and knew that to campaign we would have to forge alliances with as many groups as possible, to win support. At the time, we didn't realise how successful we would be in winning support — the general feeling was that whoever took on BHP in Wollongong deserved to be supported, as we later found out.
“When we approached the wider women’s movement we gained great support, when we approached the unions, we talked about jobs for all, and not displacing men's jobs for women, as the company had done in the ’70s, alienating the unions at the time.
“The organised migrant community also related to our fight, as they too had suffered discrimination in getting jobs. To build those alliances, we basically sat down day after day and called every branch of every union in Wollongong, we called every branch of the ALP, we called every women’s group we knew of throughout the country, we followed up with letters, we asked for support and offered a speaker to talk about the campaign.”
Murphy has wanted to make a film about the campaign for many years. She has now teamed up with the filmmakers behind last year’s documentary Radical Wollongong, which includes a short section on the Jobs for Women battle.
Director of Radical Wollongong, Paul Benedek, said he was inspired to make the film because of the response from audiences.
“When we screened our documentary audiences kept saying ‘you should make a film about Jobs for Women’. It was both the most exciting and inspiring part of that film, and also one of the least known.
“It’s a story that runs counter to the mainstream Hollywood narrative — the 'hero' isn't someone with special powers or money or fame — it is a group of women who come together and organise for their rights.”
Benedek believes the story is relevant to women’s rights campaigns today because it “counters the idea that feminism is the domain of predominantly white, relatively privileged women, and is about getting more women into parliament or corporate boardrooms”.
He said: “The Jobs for Women campaign was about the rights of the majority of women, who are working class. It not only included and embraced migrant women workers, but organised so that migrant women were central to leading the campaign.
“Jobs for Women demonstrated a working-class feminism that recognised the links between women's oppression and class, race, ethnicity and more. Socialist feminists were central to initiating the campaign and throughout the battle, while the campaign reached out to a broad range of allies to create an unstoppable community-wide struggle for justice.
“Today the Australian workforce is still highly segregated, with many jobs still seen as 'men's' or 'women's' work, and 'men's' work invariably valued and paid more highly. There is still highly unequal wages, there is still rampant sexism in the workplace, in the media, and throughout Australian society.
“Yet at the same time, interest in feminism is on the rise, with young women in particular drawn to women's rights issues and to resist sexism.
“In the face of a sexist system, and with many looking for feminist answers, the Jobs for Women story can be crucial in showing that a fighting, working class feminism can win over the most powerful corporate foes.”
The filmmakers are looking for people to get involved in bringing the project to life.
Benedek said: “We need people to join the network supporting the film and follow its development by signing up to the Jobs for Women film newsletter, liking the Jobs for Women Facebook page, visiting the website, and inviting other feminists, unionists and progressives to do the same.
The book is being launched in Wollongong on May 9, and will include Murphy and book co-author Pat Brewer as guests, teasers from the film project, live music including from the Illawarra Union Singers, and the public launch of a crowdfunding campaign for the film.
A launch in Sydney will be held on June 5.
Benedek said a crowdfunding campaign will be launched on May 1, with an all-or-nothing target of raising $25,000 to be raised by June 21, to move the film toward production.
“While the overall budget for the film is in the hundreds of thousands, this amount will be crucial to have the film seen as a serious prospect, and will help as we seek funding from grants, film bodies, trade unions and other progressive organisations and more.
“Supporters of the film get rewards in return, from seeing the film first, to appearing in the credits, attending the premiere, being in the film itself, up to being credited as an executive producer. We are also looking for volunteers of time and materials for the development and the shoot.”
Benedek has no doubt the story will make a terrific film. “It has everything you could want, and more, for a dramatic film — a battle against the odds, a seemingly unbeatable opponent, fascinating and warm key characters and extremely dramatic moments in the courtroom battles which tested anti-discrimination laws for the first time.”
Or in Murphy’s words: “The campaign showed to all women that we can work in all jobs — we can do anything.”
[To get in touch with the producers, email JobsForWomenFilm@gmail.com, phone Jill on 0417 220 504 or visit jobsforwomenfilm.com.]