On May 6, 2009, the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission (QIRC) made a landmark decision on pay equity that acknowledged the chronic undervaluation of women's work in Queensland's community services sector. It awarded pay rises of between 18% and 37% to the workers concerned — 80% of whom were women.
The Australian Services Union and other unions covering the sector have since launched a National Pay Equity Campaign on this foundation. On March 11, the ASU filed an application with Fair Work Australia (FWA) for an "equal remuneration order" aimed at extending the Queensland gains nationwide.
In October, the ASU also signed a "heads of agreement" with the federal government on issues arising from the Queensland decision. The agreement supports state and territory community sector workers being shifted to federal coverage under the new system of simplified "modern" awards that began on January 1.
The ASU plans to increase pressure on the government with a June 10 national day of action.
Brisbane ASU delegate, Socialist Alliance activist and long-term community sector worker Margaret Gleeson spoke to Green Left Weekly's Dick Nichols about the campaign.
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Will the understanding reached between the ASU and the federal government help the struggle for pay equity?
If community sector workers nationally get the wage rates that have been decided in Queensland, it will be a big step forward. Our industry is very diverse, combining small organisations employing one or two workers with large, mainly religious, charities. It's not uncommon to have workers working for three organisations — 10 hours a week here, 12 hours there — to make up a decent full-time wage.
The workforce is highly skilled, 51% with university qualifications, yet pay is $15,000 less than the average wage. It's no wonder that 52% of community sector workers are not committed to staying beyond five years. A national award with pay-scales that redress the inequities in our highly gender-segregated industry would be good.
Will FWA repeat the Queensland decision? Where's the money going to come from?
That second question is what the campaign is all about. The thrust of the campaign is not towards employers, but towards federal and state governments, so that the industry will be able to pay workers comparable wages to those doing the same sort of work in other sectors. A lot of the community sector simply doesn't have the capacity to generate income.
Even in Queensland, where we waged a very successful campaign and where the QIRC basically granted the ASU claim, the increase is still not in a lot of workers' pockets. Only 10% of the $414 million provided by the state government as supplementary funding in the last budget has actually reached the workers.
So our campaign in Queensland focuses on getting people actually paid the increases awarded. The ASU's agreement with the federal government commits them to paying this increase when Queensland workers shift across to the federal award.
The FWA may not reproduce the Queensland decision on pay increases, but the fact that the government and the ASU are looking to present an uncontested "Agreed Statement of Facts" may make it difficult for FWA to decide on a quantum markedly less than the QIRC decision.
Wouldn't some employers be opposed to the campaign?
The employers have generally been supportive. In Queensland, the Queensland Council of Social Services ran a campaign in support among its affiliate organisations. QCOSS also funded an ASU industrial officer to work on the campaign, and large charities and small community organisations also contributed to that campaign.
But, of course, the employers may support the principle while contesting concrete pay rise proposals.
Why is industrial relations minister Julia Gillard, with her record of attacking unions in the building and resource industries, apparently supporting this campaign?
Everyone, even the employers, supports the principle of pay equity. But let's see what happens when the claim goes before FWA and the government's arguments are revealed.
There is a lot of money involved: $414 million for one year's sector pay increases just in Queensland wasn't enough. The commonwealth knows that to actually eliminate pay inequity for 200,000 community workers will cost billions. That's why they will be insisting on a phased-in approach to increases, one which may last longer than the four years of the "heads of agreement".
But we should always remind them that government budgets have also saved billions since the contracting-out and privatisation of welfare began in the Keating years.
Where should the campaign go from here?
This is a three-pronged campaign — industrial, community and political. Yes, the case with FWA is a landmark for women's rights, but because the industry itself deals directly with community concerns the campaign will succeed to the degree that it draws together union members and affected communities.
It's also a union-rebuilding campaign after Work Choices. There are still large employers in the sector who don't allow union organisers on site. Those that do often have many scattered work places with one or two employees — 500 employees in 300 workplaces!
How is the campaign going? What enthusiasm is there for it?
We're getting a good response. There was an enthusiastic rally in November in Melbourne last year, and we're looking to get a big turnout for June 10. The NDA was set last November and we've been organising ever since.
After June 10, the campaign will focus locally — with the message to keep the pressure up, especially in marginal seats. The state and federal elections are there to be used.
Do you have any idea how much a success in this campaign will affect the statistics on gender pay inequity, where women earn more than 17% less than men?
The ASU makes parallels with the nurses: they understand that if you don't keep campaigning you will always slip back. So the campaign has to happen in other traditionally female industries. In terms of immediate flow-on we're looking towards sectors of the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union, covering cleaners and bar staff, who are mainly female. ACTU secretary Sharan Burrow may have said "no flow-on" when asked about it by the 7.30 Report, but without flow-on the struggle for pay equity grinds to a halt.
[To get involved in the campaign visit the ASU website at