Women, what’s your labour worth?

Rosie the riveterThe federal industrial relations tribunal, Fair Work Australia, has passed down an exciting and historical Decision on women’s wages.

More than a year ago, the Australian Services Union brought an application for an equal remuneration order to the tribunal. If granted, the order would apply to employees of non-government employers in the social, community and disability services industry (the SACS industry) throughout the country. The issue, said the ASU, is not that any given male SACS worker is being paid more for the same work than any given female SACS worker. The issue is around ‘equal remuneration for men and women workers for work of equal value‘.

The basic premise of the application was that the work done in these caring industries was undervalued and was not being paid in line with work of equal value in other industries; and that this was a result of a number of factors, including inability to bargain effectively, government-funding arrangements, and the community’s tendency to see the work of caring industries to be a natural extension of a woman’s domestic duties. They argued that the gender of SACS workers was directly related to the lesser pay.

The submissions made in support of the ASU’s application are extraordinary, and the summary of these provided in FWA’s Decision is well worth a read.

The ASU submitted that SACS ‘employees have a range of skills, qualifications and accreditations. There has been an increase in the number of employees who hold post-school qualifications which is in line with the “professionalisation” of work in the industry, a trend which is expected to continue’. The current SACS award, they said, didn’t provide enough of an incentive for workers to go out and get qualifications or undertake professional development.

The Decision acknowledged the high numbers of casual and part-time employees. ‘Both types of workers are likely to be low-paid and to have low superannuation balances. There is also evidence of job uncertainty because of funding cycles and the uncertainty of programs or services being renewed.’

Who would put up with it, you ask? Overwhelmingly, women.

The tribunal took into account the submission that ‘the characterisation of work in the SACS industry as caring work performed by females can lead to undervaluation of the complexity of the skills required’. Professor Meagher, Professor of Social Policy at the University of Sydney, said:

As these female roles are devalued culturally, the skills associated with them are similarly devalued or rendered invisible. Instead of being recognised as skills that some have or have learnt, they are assumed to be natural. Because they are associated with, or replace care tasks that might have previously been offered, unpaid, within religious or voluntary organisations, on the basis of love, altruism, duty or personal pleasure rather than money, these skills are consequently valued and paid less than skills associated with men.

Aside from low pay meaning not having much spare cash in your back pocket, the ASU submitted that ‘the undervaluation of work in the SACS industry has a number of undesirable effects. Individual workers and their families suffer the effect of low pay. Attraction and retention of staff is difficult and this in turn impacts on service delivery now and in the future. There are wider economic impacts if wages do not adequately reflect the value of the work, including negative effects on female workforce participation rates … Organisations are having difficulty with recruitment and retention, service delivery is suffering, impacting adversely on clients and employees and, given the age profile of employees, there is a “real risk of severe shortage of employees in the medium term”’.

These are caring industries, people. These are the workers who look after your parents, your partners and your children. Is this the kind of working life we wish these workers to endure? Do we not think the work they do is equal to the work of our plumbers, our mechanics, or some other bloke who has the equivalent levels of qualifications and experience?

(Now let me be clear here: we’re not talking about paying wages for workers that are in short supply, or about what the market will bear. The equal pay sought is an equal statutory minimum – it’s an equal award wage.)

I wrote in an earlier post about the blurring between domestic life and domestic work. The May 2009 report of the Social Policy Research Centre, University of New South Wales was submitted in evidence, and contained the following:

As community services work involves providing care to others, it is often considered an extension of women’s mothering and domestic roles. As such, the skilled dimensions of the work are often invisible, assumed to be natural and voluntary rather than resulting from formal learning, and occurring in private, personal interactions and often in people’s homes.

Other evidence was submitted on how difficult it is to collectively bargain within the SACS work environments: the workforce is decentralised, it has a high number of casual and part-time staff who fear the ramifications of bargaining too hard, employers are restricted by government funding. So we know why they are paid less. If FWA failed to decide in favour of the ASU’s application, they would be saying that they should they be paid less.

And while it might seem a no-brainer, in terms of how the industrial landscape can and will now shift, it is a big step.

Though FWA didn’t specify how much wages should rise by, we know that they will. The knock-on effect will be big. It will be expensive. And there will be a sting in the political tail.

The federal government will need to increase funding to all of the providers who operate under contract for the government in order that these providers can pay the increased wages. A number of employers supported the ASU’s application, provided the federal funding bodies came to the party to help them pay the increase in costs. The ASU weren’t shy in pointing the finger at government itself, holding the existing funding arrangements partly responsible for the undervaluation of such work. And to top it off, this Decision will now pave the way for other low-paid, female-dominated industries to state their cases for equal pay for work of equal value.

It seems amazing that we’re having such a conversation about equal remuneration today, in 2011.

Fair Work Australia will be calling for further submissions later in the year to try to come up with exact dollars and cents. It will be fascinating and frustrating to watch in equal measure.

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  1. I am not so sure that the door is opened to an increse in pay or conidtions of work. The task set for proving the equalisation case is quite difficult.

    Firstly, the equal pay comparison is made not between a predominantly male workforce and a predom female workforce doing the same shit but two predom female workforces doing the same shit but for different employers (public sector and private sector).

    One of the union victories here is actually the refutation of the employer argument that a real life gender comparator must be found (see paragraph 232). The pay effect of being a woman (or more appropriately, since many men are SACs employees, the effect of being employeed under an award covering a predominantely female workfore) is being sought through an abstract ‘mechanism’ rather than a comparison with another industry.

    The ruling asks parties to go and try and workout the degree to which gender has effected the conditions of SACs workers in distinction from all other factors. (see paragraph 277 and 281-3)

    There are real difficulties in making the argument from this position.

    There is the potential that the actual amount awarded could be considerably less than hoped for. If the Queensland equalisation result (between pulbic and private sector) is the bench mark then the report pours cold water over that! (paragraph 291)

    There could be not much change at all. The limitaitons on union power as a result of a casualised or part time or high turn-over workforce are not limitations on conditions directly as a result of the female nature of the workfore.

    Additionally, the argument that women’s work has often been seen as voluntary or having some altruistic or moral component does not lead to the conclusion that voluntary and alturistic work is devalued as women’s work. SACs workers are predominantly paid by non-profits, like Yooralla, that do see themselves as in some way philanthropic and seek to employee on the basis of ‘you get the opportunity of doing good work (and therefore you should accept crapier pay)’ – the fringe benefits tax concessions are something of a recognition of this.

    Could not the majority of the wage discount between public service and SACs employees be attributed to this altruisitic argument: the low price is because care work is for good, not because it is care work that women have often done.

    But also, how much can it be argued that the public service recieves better conditions because it’s unions have more men than those covered by the SACs award (the argument raised at paragraph 279)? Women can strike just as easily as men, they can argue too, and the report already conceedes that the employers are not biased by the gender of their employees (paragraph 278)!

    In the end, the ruling states that national equalisation of SACs employees with the pay of public sector employees performing similar work is not justifiable on the grounds of gender equality. It opens the way to offering only very slight, if any, change in conditions in recognition of the effect of missing penises.

    It seems, there is a far stronger, or at least a more simpler and thereby persuavie, argument that the majority of pay differences between public sector workers doing the same work as workers under the SACs award arise because of the attraction of working for a charity rather than because of misogyny.

  2. I like that there has been a recognition that there are lower rates in an industry that does have a predominantly female workforce. Certainly, the Bench haven’t said that this is a result of discrimination (or misogeny or missing penises); but they don’t need to. It’s enough that the discrepancy is there, and that there is a relationship between wages and gender as a result of the other factors that are associated with a predominantly female workforce.

    You’re right – there may not be a huge jump in wages, but there is potential for it. I think the final decisions on how much wages should rise by will not only come down to how strong the unions are in their submissions, but how political the decision will be. If government is satisfied that they are paying their own public sector workers rates based on certain minimums, it would be difficult for them to submit that workers reliant on federal system awards should by rights be paid less.

    As far as the selling point ‘work because you love it’ of places such as Yooralla; I wonder how much of it is just a matter of marketing. How else would you get staff to work for lower wages you unless you sold it as having a feel-good reward? And quite frankly, care work might be for ‘good’, but it’s also emotionally draining, physically demanding and often very messy. I’m sure that SACS employers would happily advertise their positions with ‘Excellent pay and conditions’ if they were able to do so instead.

    I suspect you’re far more knowledgeable in this area than I am (it’s not my area of expertise, as I’m sure you can spot) – but I find it exciting nonetheless.

  3. Thanks for this blog Isy. And to OL for making discussion about this issue possible.
    I started work this year under the SACS award, running an NGO. I haven’t read the latest decision and am not competent to comment on the more legalistic aspects of it. But outside that framework, there are still some things that can be usefully said.
    Those women and (some) men working under SACS are doing some of the most difficult work in the country, and are not just generally poorly paid but also under resourced, usually scrabbling around for government funding, dependent on fixed-term grants and always subject to changing political winds, and not unusually working in organisations that are somewhat ramshackle and prone to fracture.
    The 2011 industrial reality is that if you are a woman you will most likely be earning less than a man. The argument that may come from NGO’s that the work they do is altruistic and that therefore employees should be grateful for doing it is a dysfunctional one in my opinion. It’s exploitative and can be used to neutralise any discussion of the politics of altruism, and of the work that is done and how it is done. A valid way of recognising socially useful work is by appropriate financial remuneration. One can still have altruistic motives and be paid well. The two are not mutually exclusive. We don’t expect doctors to be paid badly and neither should we expect sexual assault workers, or those working in the areas of family violence to be paid badly either.
    I don’t under stand this statement of Nick’s:
    “Could not the majority of the wage discount between public service and SACs employees be attributed to this altruisitic argument: the low price is because care work is for good, not because it is care work that women have often done.”

    There are a mix of reason why women work mostly in the marginalised professions under poor industrial conditions. Altruism might be one of them, but there are a whole range of other motives too, motives dependent on social opportunity, gender expectations and so on and so forth. Whatever. Difficult work should be remunerated appropriately. In NSW Barry O’Farrell is already muttering that the state can’t afford a SACS pay increase etc etc. No surprises. Big dollars are always available for Big Money, but apparently never available to provide adequate services for the poor, marginalised, ill, dispossessed, traumatised and forgotten.

  4. I agree with Stephen and can only hope this wage case is successful not only for reasons of raising the status of such work and providing the workers carrying it out with fair remuneration for extremely important work, but because the benefits to the recipients of such services would be substantial. I think the gender imbalance in these positions exists because of historical reasons and I understand the leverage it has given to the argument for the fight to raise wages in the sector, but wide and clear of that, wages for this frontline work need to be ‘beefed up’ for the plain fact that we are talking about services that define human dignity and are integral to how our system views its individuals. Thanks for the post Izy.

  5. Isy, thanks for the post (because I think it’s an important Decison that really hasn’t had the press it deserves) – although I’m not sure that you’ve represented the application accurately.

    It’s not a case between plumbers and SACS workers, as Nick points out it’s a case between SACS workers in the private sector and SACS workers in the public sector. Your post isn’t incorrect – it just seems to skip straight to the underlying issue of womens wages without fully exploring how the tribunal might have arrived at their Decision, and exactly what that Decision suggests.

    (Although I wonder if this has as much to do with writing about something as complicated as the equal rem case in a thousand words or less as it does with the need to have a snappy angle in an overcrowded blogosphere.)

    Specifically, the Decision says:

    “We have found that employees in the SACS industry are predominantly women and are generally remunerated at a level below that of employees of state and local governments who perform similar work….We consider gender has been important in creating the gap between pay in the SACS industry and pay in comparable state and local government employment.”

    Something just as interesting as the issue of gender is the issue of government funding, which you’ve touched on in your post Isy.

    FWA have acknowledged that the gap between public and private sector wages is also related to the way that government funds social and community services (and Stephen is witness to this) and how private operators and contracted to perform services:

    “There is considerable evidence in this matter and widespread acceptance by the parties that a major reason for the actual wage rates in the SACS industry is the level of funding provided by governments. This situation appears to be similar across the industry, even in parts which are less female dominated than others such as community legal work… It appears that part of the rationale for the current level of funding can be explained by historical inertia and the operation of the market for government funding.”

    At what point does the government (be it state or federal) need to step up and take responsibility for the disparity? At what point to voters need to accept that a higher proportion of the budget ought to be spent on social and community services – and here we return to Isy’s premise. At what point do we all (government who represent us all and who are charged with spending our taxes) need to acknowledge that work in this field cannot be dressed up as altruism and needs to be acknowledged as work?

  6. I can’t help having the suspicion that the real desire is an equalisation between public sector and private sector workers and that the gender equality arguments were pursued as a convenient way of pursuing this.

    Why didn’t the ASU directly seek the equalisation of pay between public sector and private sector workers?

    1. Hi Nick, The application was made under section 302 of the Act which specifically provides for equal remuneration between men and women for work of equal value. As far as I know, the Act does not give the tribunal power to make an order for equal remuneration between public and private sectors. It might be convenient, but it is within the parameters of the legislation.

  7. Very interesting article and comments to read… I love the image associated with the story too…

    Although the main issue being investigated here is equal pay for work of equal value, and gender being the main reason put forward sacs workers receive less pay, is it also important to ask – how valued are the people being cared for (older people, people with disabilites, people who need help with their lives) in our society?

    1. Hi Michelle, I agree – and I personally think that there is a direct link between how we value those who need to be cared for and those who are doing the caring.

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