Australian women have still not achieved pay equity. This is unfinished business that should be an imperative for the incoming government after the 2022 election.
‘Equal pay for equal work’ was introduced in 1969; ‘equal pay for work of equal value’ in 1972, and a female minimum wage in 1974. But ABS data for November 2021, shows the gender pay gap for full-time workers was $255.30 per week or 13.8%. Including part-time workers, the gap was $483.30 per week or 30.6%.
The gender pay gap is the result of the social and economic factors that combine to reduce women’s earning capacity over a lifetime. Women earn less than men on an hourly, weekly, annual and lifetime basis, and have less superannuation when they retire. Women are more likely to be employed in less well-paid occupations and are more likely than men to have a disrupted working life due to child-bearing and family-caring responsibilities. The gender pay disparity persists even though girls are now more likely than boys to complete Year 12 at school and women are more likely than men to complete tertiary studies.
A 50-year campaign
50 years after The Equal Pay for Work of Equal Value Principle was adopted there is still overwhelming evidence of a large disparity in men’s and women’s earnings. The Equal Pay for Equal Work decision of 1969 was fully implemented, with uniform rates introduced for men and women doing exactly the same jobs but there was a failure to implement the 1972 Equal Pay for Work of Equal Value Principle. Work value was not adequately examined and appropriate comparisons with better-paid male occupations were not made.
The National Pay Equity Coalition (NPEC) became the key player in the campaign for gender pay equity. Emerging from the 1987 Socialist Feminist Conference, between 1988 and 2011 it led the key demand to get award wages in female-dominated industries increased so as to fairly reflect the wages of men for work of comparable value. NPEC’s work from 1988 to 2011 has left an ongoing legacy – one that needs to be built on by the next generation of strategists and activists.
The NPEC’s legacy includes a solution to the problem of defining inequality on the basis of work value comparisons between male- and female-dominated job classifications in a labour market with deep occupational segregation. This means establishing equal or comparable worth for work that is not of the same or similar nature. NPEC members, liaising with international colleagues, worked systematically to develop a methodology and criteria for a gender-inclusive approach to job evaluation.
The NSW & Queensland Principles
Another legacy of NPEC has been the breakthrough concept of historical undervaluation, which establishes the undervaluation of predominantly female classifications without reference to a male comparator and without the need to establish discrimination. It was first enunciated in the NSW Equal Remuneration Principle (ERP) 2000. In 2019, 17,500 public school administrative and learning support staff employed by NSW Department of Education were awarded an immediate 11% pay increase and a further 8% to be phased in, a decision based explicitly on the gender-based undervaluation methodology.
The Queensland Principle 2002 and subsequent state legislation was even stronger. This is explicit that a male comparator is not required to proceed with a case about gender equity. Moreover, and going further than NSW, the Commission can consider enterprise bargaining rates as well as awards.
The poverty of the Federal system
The state industrial jurisdictions are increasingly restricted to public servants and employees of some state enterprises. All other workers – private sector, some local government, universities, most NGOs – are under the Federal Fair Work Act. Other than the 2011 award of significant pay increases to social and community services workers (SACS award), outcomes in the Fair Work Commission have been extremely limited. This is aptly summarised by Fiona Macdonald and Sara Charlesworth that ‘equal pay has been marginalised in the operation of the Fair Work Act’. As Robyn Layton, Meg Smith and Andrew Stewart put it: ‘… addressing and resolving matters of gender-based undervaluation, within the framework of the Fair Work Act, is neither automatic nor straightforward’.
Even the SACS decision did not establish principles and precedents and is ‘a narrower representation of the problem of gender pay inequity by FWA than in state-based equal pay cases’. Moreover, the President of the Fair Work Commission, Ian Ross, has made it very clear that he does not see a legal framework in the Fair Work Act 2009 that will enable the Fair Work Commission to deal with pay equity claims.
Change the Fair Work Act
Currently the Fair Work Act is a block to gender pay equity. It must be amended if pay equity is to be achieved. In particular, changes are required to
- Empower the FWC to make orders ensuring pay equity.
- Ensure the use of gender-inclusive methodology and criteria for job evaluation and classification schemes.
- Require the FWC to consider enterprise bargaining rates as well as award rates in assessing an equal remuneration case.
(This article is part of the SEARCH Activists Guide to the 2022 Election. You can download the entire guide by clicking here.)