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  Issue No 14 Official Organ of LaborNet 21 May 1999  





The Wartime Women’s Employment Board

By Dr Beverly Simons

During World War II policy makers were forced to embraqce a unique wage-fixing method.

When the Curtin Labor Government assumed office in October 1941, one of its immediate tasks was how to resolve the problem of women workers being employed on men's jobs in industry during the war, on much lower wage rates than the men they were replacing. The trade union movement was greatly concerned that the employment of cheap female labour as a wartime necessity, could seriously threaten male jobs and wage standards in the long term.

The ACTU and key unions in the munitions and metal industries demanded that women workers doing men's work must receive equal pay for the duration of the war. They pressured the Government to use its wartime regulation powers to ensure that this group of women were paid 100% of the total male rate including margins, for the classifications in which they worked.

Most of the Cabinet were opposed to this course, however, because of likely adverse inflationary effects, probable 'flow-on' demands from the mass of lower-paid female workers employed in women's industries, and the certainty of strong opposition from employers to such a significant change from the traditional wage-fixation formula.

Rather, the Government chose a compromise solution: it established a special wage-fixation tribunal, the Women's Employment Board (WEB), and empowered it to award pay rates between 60-100% of the male rate, assessed on the basis of the female workers' relative efficiency and productivity. This unique wage-fixing method was a radical departure from the entrenched 'family wage' basis long followed by the Commonwealth Arbitration Court under which female wage rates were set at around 54% of the minimum male rate.

During the WEB's turbulent two-and-a-half years' existence, it awarded substantially higher pay rates than women workers classified as unskilled had ever before received in Australia. Some 80,000 women benefited from its determinations, representing about 9% of the total female workforce at its wartime peak. The great majority of these women, working in the munitions, metal and aircraft industries, received 90% of the total male rate. Equal pay was awarded to only a relatively small number of women in a diverse range of occupations, such as tram conductresses, Federal Public Service clerks and telegraphists.

Employers' Opposition:

Even before the WEB was instituted, major employer organisations and United Australia Party (UAP) politicians had flagged their trenchant opposition to Labor's intention to bypass normal wage-fixation channels by allowing a special tribunal to operate outside the Arbitration Court's jurisdiction. The concerted campaign waged against the WEB was spearheaded by the Associated Chambers of Manufactures and the Metal Trades Employers' Association, backed up by conservative parliamentarians and judges. Two historians later described it as a 'systematic counter-offensive' using 'all available political and judicial means'.

The conservative attack had two major aims: to discredit and challenge the validity of the WEB, its governing regulations and its wage determinations; and to withhold payment of the WEB rates to its female employees. The campaign was partly successful. The regulations establishing the WEB were twice disallowed by the Senate; and six separate High Court challenges were mounted, the major case resulting in the Board being inoperative for seven months during 1943. In addition, many metal industry employers strenuously resisted paying the 90% WEB rate as long as possible, causing widespread discontent and industrial action among affected women workers around the country, as well as much time, expense and effort by their unions to enforce the payments.

Whilst employers' resistance to paying higher female wages in the short- term was certainly an important motivation for the campaign, a major driving force was their opposition to the transfer of wage-fixing responsibility from the Commonwealth Arbitration Court. The basis of their hostility to the WEB lay in their determination to restore the Court's traditional practice of fixing female rates as a percentage (a little over half) of the needs basic wage. Raising women's wages on the basis of assessing their comparable efficiency and productivity, threatened to jeopardise post-war continuation of the 'family wage' system which ensured cheap female labour.

The employers' major concern was that once traditional wage-fixing formulas were breached, it may not be possible to revert to the status quo belief that 'women's work' was inherently of lower value than that performed by men. They were looking to post-war expansion of manufacturing industry increasingly based on automation, deskilling and process-line production, where cheaper female labour could be employed on a wider range of jobs. In their opposition to the 'socialist' Labor government and the WEB, there was much more at stake than the short- term issue of higher wages for a section of women.

Dr Beverley Symons is the President of the Sydney Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History.

This article is based on the author's Ph.D thesis, 'Challenging and Maintaining the Traditional Gender Order: Labour Movement Responses to Women Workers in the Metal Industry, and to Equal Pay, during World War II', University of Wollongong, 1997, which can be perused at the University's Library, or obtained through Inter-Library Loan


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*   Issue 14 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Madame President
The new President of the NSW Legislative Council Meredith Burgmann has spent most of her life opposing authority. Now she has a chance to exercise it.
*  Unions: The ACTU Faces the Labour Hire Challenge
The enormous growth in labour hire and contracting out employment is creating a big challenge for unions worldwide.
*  History: The Wartime Women’s Employment Board
During World War II policy makers were forced to embraqce a unique wage-fixing method.
*  Labour Review: What's New from the Information Centre
View the latest issue of Labour Review, Labor Council's fortnightly newsletter for unions.
*  Review: Origlass Biographer Keeps Red Flag Flying
The self proclaimed 'ultra-democrat', Hall Greenland, has described his relationship with the Balmain legend Nick Origlass as "Freudian".
*  International: Paddy's Payback
But for the Timorese many Australian diggers, like retired wharfie Paddy Kenneally, would have died at the hands of the Japanese during WW2. Now it's time to return the favour...
*  Campus: Tales from the Frontline
This week's successful VSU protests seem to have killed off Kemp's ideological agenda. We go live to the protest

»  Call For IR Crisis Talks as Country Conference Looms
»  Workers Sacked for Body Hire
»  British Union Secures Free Net Access
»  Cab Charge Wars: SBS Workers Fight for Their Lives
»  State Wage Case Smooth - Except for Brack
»  FOI Loopholes Could Leave Public Servants Exposed
»  Drug Summit Misses Tokin’ Gesture
»  Public Will Lose Again From Rail Sackings
»  Robin Hood Strikes Again
»  CPSU shows it cares…
»  Unions Take Action on Timor, Stolen Generation

»  Guest Report
»  Sport
»  Trades Hall
»  Piers Watch

Letters to the editor
»  Faction Calls Miss Point
»  Don't Ignore the Class Divide
»  Timor: Look at the Map!
»  Songs of the Revolution Feedback

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