Women lose out in enterprise bargaining

Issue 

Women lose out in enterprise bargaining

A survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics released in the first week of June found that the gap between women's and men's wages is increasing. Although equal pay was supposedly won in the 1970s, the gender wage gap in Australia remains substantial. Women's wages remain around 65% to 70% of men's, despite an initial decline in the gap during the '70s and early '80s.

There are a number of reasons why this is occurring. Most new jobs created over the last two decades have been filled by women. The bulk of these have been part-time, casual and non-unionised. The greater flexibility that has been achieved within the work force to the benefit of business has been at the cost of traditional "men's" jobs, that is, unionised, permanent, full-time employment.

The gender segregation of the Australian work force continues to be one of the greatest in the OECD countries. Women's continued concentration in retail, community services, clerical and recreation and service sectors is a significant contributor to the wages gap.

In the words of the Australian, "women are proving to be a cheap source of low-skilled labour at the blunt end of the ... economy".

Strategies suggested to overcome the problem include that of Frank Stilwell from Sydney University, who argues for across-the-board wage adjustments to compensate women who have been unable to win pay increases.

NSW Labor MP Meredith Burgmann urges women to move into non-traditional occupations to increase their share of the money. This argument seems to be to divide the cake differently: if some men also receive low wages, the wages gap will decrease.

The most important contributing factor in current wage trends is enterprise bargaining. Replacing awards with enterprise bargaining has left areas in which women predominate in a weak position. Sheila Rimmer, senior lecturer in economics at La Trobe University, says women today have to demonstrate productivity gains and improved efficiency to win pay rises. In the areas in which women are concentrated, this is a difficult task.

A review of NSW enterprise agreements by the NSW Department of Industrial Relations found that agreements won by women included less pay, longer hours and less training. Rimmer sees this trend as likely to continue: "There's no doubt the pay gap will open up substantially during the next few years".

To look for an answer to the increasing gap between women's and men's wages it is essential to address the reasons for the general decline in wages and conditions. Restructuring has had a negative impact on all workers and has most affected those least able to fight back. Women, and other workers who have been in weak positions during the restructuring process, have lost the most.

In the '70s equal pay was won through a concerted campaign by unionists fighting for equality for women workers. The movement of more women individually into non-traditional areas is in and of itself insufficient to address the broader causes of the decline in women's wages. Women's wages are integrally related to the struggle for better wages for all; unions ought to be taking this up as an issue of concern for all their members.