Local gov workers deserve good treatment

November 5, 2010

Fremantle Council is grappling with the rights and conditions of the workers who it expects to implement the city’s projects. I’ve proposed a policy called “Employment Values for the City of Fremantle”. For supporters of workers’ rights, the policy is straightforward and modest.

It seeks to entrench the following principles:

1. Respecting the right of workers to union organisation and representation.
2. Limiting the use of fixed-term contracts and creating a guaranteed path to permanency.
3. Remunerating employees on the basis of equal pay and conditions for work of equal value.
4. Being a leader in “family friendly” leave and other work arrangements.
5. Placing the city in the top third of WA local governments in pay and conditions.

The policy on “equal pay and conditions for work of equal value” is the most contentious and timely. For a long time, workers at the Leisure Centre, Arts Centre and some other workplaces outside the main administration building have been on an inferior pay scale.

Typically, they are paid 20% less for work of equivalent complexity and experience. This means experienced swimming instructors get about $5 an hour less than a new starter fresh out of school at the administration building.

The relevant industry awards severely limit these workers’ access to penalty rates. The new Local Government Industry Award 2010 says recreation centre and community service workers cannot access penalty rates from 5am to 10pm, Monday to Sunday.

This is perverse. The more likely you are to have unsocial hours, the less likely you are to qualify for penalty rates.

To make it worse, these workers are on a lower pay scale.

Some local governments put all their workers on to the one pay scale, but others like Fremantle have separated some off.

These workers have copped a raw deal in the past because they share something in common with other low-paid workers; they’re mostly casual female workers with less bargaining power than other sectors. In these workplaces, 70% to 100% of staff are women.

It might be normal for our society to pay experienced women workers $16 an hour to work on a Sunday, but that doesn’t make it right.

Women have been historically undervalued in the workplace and this has led to an equal pay claim on behalf of workers across the community sector. Local government should support this movement now instead of waiting to be dragged along in its wake.

The WA Local Government Act 1995 stops elected councillors from intervening in the day-to-day operation of the organisation, including staff conditions.

This has been interpreted to mean councillors should not have an opinion on how we treat our workers.

This is both wrong and a cop out.

Council is under pressure from community expectations, councillors own worthy projects and cost shifting by the state and federal governments. It would be easy to treat staff costs as a cost like any other. But they’re not, they’re people.

As an organisation that should be serving the community, we should be in line with our community’s values. More than that, local government can be an example. This year, the Surf Coast Council in Victoria became the first employer in Australia to introduce the right to domestic violence leave for its employees.

The October Council meeting voted 5-5 (carried on the Mayor’s casting vote) to defer my policy until November. I was disappointed that it was not accepted there and then, but I’m hopeful that it will be adopted after more debate and that Fremantle Council will commit to principles of equality, fairness and social justice.

[Sam Wainwright is a councillor for Fremantle Council and a member of the Socialist Alliance. His website can be found at www.freoreport.net .]

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