19 May 20111 June 2012 Main Posts Women, what’s your labour worth? Isy Burns The 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. Isy Burns More by Isy Burns Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. 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