Win for community workers is a win for communities
One hundred and fifty social and community services (SACS) workers yelled and cheered. Some seemed close to tears as they sat in an auditorium at Technology Park in the Sydney suburb of Redfern last Thursday morning.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard was standing before them to announce that the federal government would support pay increases demanded in the ASU’s Pay Up campaign.
The emotion of the crowd was not surprising. They have been waiting for this result for a very long time. They have campaigned hard, and with the knowledge that the case will benefit not just them but their families and the communities they work for.
One of the community workers in the crowd was Lisa Smajlov, a coordinator at Rozelle Neighborhood Centre. Her job is to provide opportunities for people to meet and connect in their community, and to bring them together when they are dealing with issues such as domestic violence.
Lisa was working in IT until she had her son and her relationship broke down. Her friends, family and people she met in the community sector supported her, and she decided to make a career change. But when she did, she discovered that jobs in the community sector paid far less than what she had been earning previously.
“This was when I realized that feminised work means low pay,” Lisa says.
“The work I do is so much more valuable than updating websites, but I now earn $1500 a fortnight gross, and work four days a week. The Centre is under-resourced and can’t afford to give me another day. When I was in IT ten years ago I earned triple what I make now.”
Lisa has had to take out a personal loan to keep going. Yet she stays. “Despite the cliché, I love my job.”
Lisa has been active in the equal pay case because if Fair Work Australia awards the pay increases sought by the ASU, and now supported by the federal government, she stands eventually to get an increase in wages of around $10-12,000 a year.
With this, she says, she would be able to pay off her loan, save a bit, and put some money into super, rather than living day to day.
The PM told the crowd on Thursday that an historic joint submission would be made to Fair Work Australia (FWA) by the unions running the equal pay case, and the federal government. She committed the federal government to funding its share of any pay increases awarded by FWA as a result.
This is the outcome Lisa has been waiting for. It will have an impact on her pay packet as well as those of around 150, 000 other workers, 87 per cent of whom are women. If FWA award the same rates gained in the Queensland community services award in 2009, as promised by the PM, this could amount to pay increases of up to 32 per cent for some workers.
This outcome has been coming for two years, as the ASU and other unions have run a case before FWA to have appropriate remuneration of highly skilled and poorly paid community workers doing jobs such as disability care, family support and homelessness services.
The campaign has highlighted the fact that this victory comes on the back of a history of activism for equal pay in Australia.
The famous Harvester decision of 1907, upon which Australia’s modern minimum wages system was founded, determined that women were dependents in the calculation of a man’s minimum wage. The 1912 Fruit Picker’s Case followed this by setting women’s wages at 54 per cent of a man’s.
Then women won equal pay for equal work, and equal pay for work of equal value, in 1969 and 1972 respectively.
The Social and Community Services sector, a classic example of female-dominated work, was not even acknowledged as an industry until a High Court ruling in 1983.
Yet despite these cases and the spike in women’s wages that came along with them, there is still a 17 per cent gender pay gap in Australia. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the community services sector, where workers earn on average just $46 000 a year, $8000 less than the national average.
Unsurprisingly, turnover in the sector is very high, meaning those who use the services provided often cannot rely on ongoing relationships with workers who are so important to them.
This case has been the first test of the Fair Work Act’s equal remuneration provisions and if it is successful in securing pay increases, as now looks likely, it will set an important precedent.
The commitment from the federal government means a major obstacle on the path to equal pay for SACS workers has been cleared. Not only is it a win for community workers like Lisa, it’s a win for all our communities.
Megan Clement-Couzner is a doctoral student at the Centre for Citizenship and Public Policy, University of Western Sydney. She writes about gender, and social and economic change. She is a lifelong feminist and a member of F, the Sydney feminist collective.
Fran Hayes is a former official of the Australian Social Welfare Union, a forerunner to the ASU, who campaigned for wage justice for community workers in the 1970s and 80s. Fran is also a longstanding national activist on gender pay equity. She also runs Fran Hayes Workplace Solutions, a workplace consultancy.
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