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  Issue No 17 Official Organ of LaborNet 11 June 1999  





Equal Pay - We've Come A Long Way

By Brenda Finlayson

Thirty years have passed since women around Australia raised their fists in victory at the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission's historic equal pay for equal work decision.

The fight for pay justice has continued in the decades since. Many of the valiant women who lead the struggle have died, handing the baton to younger sisters who will continue the campaign, ensuring that advances are made despite a constricting conservative economic and social climate as the end of the century nears.

The narrowing of the gender pay gap has been slow. The 1969 case established an important first principle that affected 18% of women workers, mostly teachers and nurses. The second Federal case in 1972 established the principle of equal pay for work of equal value. This was extended through all awards from 1972 and eventually put an end to separate male and female rates in awards. The gender gap was reduced by 19% between 1972 and 1977.

Women now have the best chance of earning higher wages if they come under the umbrella of an award. In May 1996, women working under awards earned 91.6% of men's rates (full-time non-managerial adults); unionised part-time women workers earn 27% more than non-union members.

Women's skills are undervalued. The NSW Pay Equity Report found recently that the worth of women's work varied depending on the industry - many sectors are undervalued simply because they are female dominated. Those same sectors are often disadvantaged in bargaining situations.

Men take home more discretionary pay than women - including over-award, bonus payments, profit-sharing, service increments and commissions - mostly because of the concentration of women in jobs that do not attract such payments. Much of this can be sheeted home to society's expectation of a woman's working role.

Women still carry an inordinate amount of family responsibility, which impacts on earnings because they may not be able to work full-time, or may miss training courses and other career development opportunities. Occupational advancement for many women is stymied because they have taken maternity leave or time off to care for children - and many are disadvantaged because of plain old prejudice from male employers who believe women are less reliable and loyal than their male peers. The latter comes down to institutionalised prejudice and will be a generational change.

ACTU President Jennie George said this week that the equal pay decision handed down on June 19, 1969, was often overshadowed by the 1972 equal pay for work of equal value case. But she believes the original decision was important for two reasons.

"First, it really raised public consciousness about equal pay as a basic human right. The publicity given to the case and the demonstrations by women in support of it was very valuable," she said.

"Secondly, winning the principle was terribly important. We take it for granted that we had to win it but that is not the case - it was strenuously resisted by employers."

Ms George said the case showed the importance of the Industrial Relations Commission and maintaining relevant award rates in helping women gain more equitable pay rates.

"That is why the current threat to the Commission by the present Government is of such concern. Its powers have already been curtailed in the Workplace Relations Act and now Peter Reith wants to cut them back even further. Clearly the spread of individual contracts will also probably mean our gender wage gap will increase - that is certainly the New Zealand experience."

The ACTU is working to prevent further erosion of the Commission and awards. The biggest wage gap between men and women is in over-awards payments - those that are outside the control of the Commission.

"When employers are left to their own devices they continue to undervalue women's work," said Jennie George. "They are prepared to pay more to men who demand it, who do heavy or dirty work or who threaten industrial action.

"Women are just not as assertive in bargaining and they are not employed in industries where industrial action is a viable option - in childcare centres, in shops and so on. Individual bargaining is likely to be a disaster for equal pay."

The ACTU is pursuing equal remuneration claims in the Industrial Relations Commission - one current case is against Melbourne's Age newspaper on behalf of clerical workers such as classified advertisement takers, whose work is undervalued compared to male printers.

Progress is slow in the fight for justice and equality, but Australian women are forming new alliances in order to force change. Two women's groups will gather in Melbourne this Friday (June 18) to mark the 1969 equal pay case. Union Women and EMILY's List will celebrate the past, toast the future and plan for more action.

Jennie George believes women's groups will make the difference in the fight for gender justice. EMILY's List was formed nearly three years and has helped 23 progressive Labor women into federal, state and territory parliaments.

"These groups are very important, especially as we are fighting Peter Reith's industrial relations changes," said Ms George. "We see how important it is to have women in parliament - I mean women who understand the realities about the needs of working women, the role of the Commission and awards, and the really unequal bargaining power between women workers and their employers.

"I am afraid we haven't had much of a response from the Liberal women MPs on these issues. So I say all power to EMILY's List to get some good women Labor parliamentarians."

Anyone wishing to join the celebration is welcome to join Jennie George and Joan Kirner this Friday, June 18, 5.30pm-7.30pm, at the EMILY's List national office, 120 Clarendon St, South Melbourne ($15, RSVP on 03/9254.1970).


Women earn 87.5% of men's pay taken from average weekly ordinary-time earnings (full-time non-managerial adults, ABS 1996)

Women make up 43% of the workforce

57% of working women are full-time

63% of working-age women (15-64 years) are in the labour force

52% of women with children aged 0-4 are in the labour force

58% of women with children aged 0-15 are in the labour force

Source: ACTU, Office for the Status of Women


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 17 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Class Consciousness
Long-time ALP member Michael Thomson has thrown a few grenades with a new book arguing that middle class trendies have taken over the ALP.
*  Legal: Reith¹s AWAs Dealt a Blow
ASU v Electrix rules that AWAs can't be a take it or leave it proposition.
*  Unions: Survey Misses the Point
Last week's attempt by the Australian newspaper to rank trade unions contained some fundamental flaws.
*  History: The Light on the Hill
Fifty years after his seminal address, Ben Chifley's words still ring true -- and still challenges Labor.
*  International: Child Labour: Kerala’s Recipe
Of India’s 55 million slave children, not one is to be found in the state of Kerala, in the south of the sub-continent.
*  Review: Bazza Mckenzie Holds His Own
Tony Moore on perhaps the greatest Australian movie ever made.
*  Women: Equal Pay - We've Come A Long Way
Thirty years have passed since women around Australia raised their fists in victory at the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission's historic equal pay for equal work decision.
*  Activists: Throwing Off the Chains
Thirty years ago, Zelda D'Aprano was so incensed by the lack of progress in achieving pay parity that she twice chained herself to public buildings in Melbourne.
*  Labour Review: What's New at the Information Centre
View the latest issue of Labour Review, a summary of industrial news for trade unions.

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