Victorian government betrays workers on equal pay

March 16, 2012
ASU equal pay rally, Sydney, 2010. Photo: ASU NSW & ACT/Flickr

Community workers were granted long-awaited pay rises in a historic decision by Fair Work Australia on February 1.

Before this decision, the 16 previous equal pay cases tried to improve pay for sectors that employ mostly women, such as the community services sector. Every case failed.

The Australian Services Union waged a determined and ultimately successful campaign. This decision will give wage rises from 23-45% to youth support, disability, refuge, family support and social workers, and also clerical and administrative staff.

Before the November 2010 Victorian state election, Mary Wooldridge, now minister for mental health, women's affairs and community services, said a Liberal government would fully fund the outcome of the equal pay case the ASU had launched.

However, after the state election, like so many others, the government has reneged on this promise. Premier Ted Baillieu's government has said it would provide $200 million over four years to fund the pay rises. About $1.1 billion a year is required.

ASU's Victoria branch assistant secretary Lisa Darmanin said: “The funding committed is not enough, and service cuts or job losses have not yet been ruled out by the state government. If the government chose to head down that path, it would result in devastating consequences to vulnerable Victorians who rely on these valued services in an industry already full of overworked employees.”

A survey by the ASU showed 87% of community sector workers had an increased workload since 2009. It also found that 73% of workers undertake regular overtime of at least three hours and 64% said that they were likely to leave the sector if there were funding cuts or job losses.

The ASU has decided to continue the campaign and focus on getting the government to pay up. Darmanin said they believe there is time to plan their campaign, because the pay rises are being phased in over time so that any job losses are not likely until 2013.

They plan to increase campaigning before the next state election but have not ruled out organising various activities before then.

An essential aspect of their campaign is recruiting more members to the ASU and improving the organisation of members. During the equal pay campaign, ASU membership doubled. The union aims to join as close as possible to 100% of the community sector workforce.

Community sector employers have been a vital ally and advocate for more funding. The ASU intends to maintain this alliance because, as Darmanin said, “they can be fantastic advocates”.

Despite the hurdle of the Baillieu government, Darmanin said she has been pleasantly surprised by the high morale of ASU members. Not many had believed that they could win, but now that the legal and moral battle has been won, members are feeling proud of their achievement.

While this campaign has been called the equal pay case because female workers dominate the community sector, the work of male workers in the sector has also been undervalued.

The workforce is about 87% female. The type of work — caring and support work — is seen as a feminine trait and therefore feminine work. The men who work in this sector will also benefit from the Fair Work decision.

Darmanin said this decision was important because it made it possible to undertake a campaign for wages based on the recognition that workers were undervalued due to their gender.

She added that, in future, hopefully this means women do not have to subsidise the services they provide that are vital to society. She said that this is not about the cost of equal pay; it is about the cost of unequal pay.

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