BY JENNY LONG
SYDNEY — The NSW Industrial Relations Commission handed down its long-awaited ruling on the pay equity test case on June 30. The decision established a new wage-fixing principle on equal pay for work of equal value — the equal remuneration principle — which will allow unions to bring cases to the commission to have the historic underpayment of women workers under state awards redressed.
The case was initiated by the NSW Labor Council after the 1998 Pay Equity Inquiry, conducted by commissioner Justice Leone Glynn, whose final report called on the government to recognise the value of women's work by allowing the principles of pay equity to apply in enterprise agreements. Glynn also recommended the application of the equal remuneration principle to award and over-award payments. This second requirement has been achieved in theory — although the decision limits the principle's application to award payments — in the June 30 decision.
Labor Council secretary Michael Costa welcomed the decision, telling Workers On-Line that it would give trade unions the opportunity to redress gender inequality in the setting of wages and conditions. It was pleasing, he said, that "the commission rejected the position of the NSW Employers Federation which sought to constrain any new principle". Costa added that the Labor Council would now develop a strategy to bring the principle into effect.
It is not yet clear how much can be made of the principle's adoption: as the commission will be required to consider the effect of equal remuneration decisions on the NSW economy, and the industry and employers concerned, and any likely effect on employment. The NSW Public Service Association, which intends to bring its first case addressing the undervaluation of women's work for state public sector librarians, has acknowledged that the cases will not be easy to win.
The decision has been welcomed by feminists. The Department for Women's Philippa Hall, who worked with the Pay Equity Task Force and Inquiry, noted that the decision allows a fresh consideration of the value of work and the appropriate rates of pay — particularly important for female-dominated occupations where pay rates have been historically undervalued. Hall adds that comparator awards and classifications are not required, and comparisons of work value — measured by skill, responsibility, qualifications and conditions, but not external factors like labour market supply and demand or productivity — can be made across dissimilar work and across enterprises. The principle is also not restricted to female-dominated occupations, even though the significant occupational segregation of women in the Australian labour market means that will be what most cases address.
In measuring the decision's significance for women in NSW, Hall points out that of the 1.3 million women employed, 60% are under NSW industrial law and a significant proportion are covered by awards rather than enterprise agreements (which are excluded). As Labor Council executive officer Naomi Steer pointed out earlier this year, without the inclusion of enterprise agreements, the chance of meaningful change is limited.
The state government has not yet delivered promised changes to the state industrial law, which were identified by the Pay Equity Inquiry. The most important of these is an amendment to the act to define remuneration in relation to earnings outside the award system (i.e., enterprise agreements) and an amendment to allow the commission to consider pay equity when it exercises any of its functions.