By Yasmin Noone
In a historical move that will soon see women in low-wage caring roles paid the wage they have long been due, Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, today committed to partly funding pay increases for all social and community sector (SACS) workers across the country.
During an address to workers in Sydney this morning, PM Gillard announced that the federal government had come to an agreement with the Australian Services Union (ASU) over the SACS equal remuneration case, currently before Fair Work Australia (FWA).
The agreement will see the application’s principle respondent, the Commonwealth, publically and legally support the umbrella applicant, the Australian Services Union (ASU), and all of its SACS members – including community care workers – by working with the union to present a joint submission to the FWA in the Equal Pay test case.
The joint submission is expected to clearly state that the federal government will put money where its mouth is and fund its share of the 18 to 42 per cent pay increase which will flow to SACS workers, as a result of the full bench’s decision in favour of the applicant.
The Commonwealth’s commitment to pay equity for SACS workers is estimated to come at a federal budget cost of over $2 billion.
“The federal government and the ASU now have agreement on a way forward,” the PM said.
“A way forward to deliver fair pay for caring workers covered by this case.
“…That means together we will argue for rates of pay that fairly and properly value social and community sector work, for rates of pay which don’t discriminate and which finally end decades of unequal pay.
“Other unions will join us and we expect major providers will do the same, to support this before Fair Work Australia’s full bench.”
Given the ASU/Commonwealth’s joint submission, the full bench is now expected to rule in favour of both the applicant and SACS wage increases.
This means that new, ‘fair’ pay rates will be introduced, increasing current SACS wages by around 20 per cent on average, bringing them in line with pay rates for comparable work in other comparable industries.
The pay increases will also aim to eradicate the gender pay imbalance associated with SACS roles, which have been traditionally thought of as jobs that entail ‘women’s work’.
The federal government has proposed that “fair pay increases” start on 1 December next year and be gradually phased-in over six years.
ASU’s assistant national secretary, Linda White, said community workers applauded the leading role the PM had taken in seeking to deliver pay increases sought by the sector.
“Today the PM recognises community workers’ long struggle to have their work given the value it deserves and their right to be paid fair and reasonable wages.
“PM Gillard has shown she doesn’t just talk about supporting equal pay for women, she acts on it.
“On average, Australian women currently earn 18 percent less than men – it is the undervaluing of female dominated sectors such as the social and community services sector that has held back improvements to this pay gap, which has stood still for 30 years.”
States and territories, now it’s your turn
The states and territories were also respondents to the case but, unlike the Commonwealth, are yet to follow through with a union agreement or commitment to fund its share of SACS wage increases.
“The states and territories should also do the right thing,” the PM said.
“To support properly valued rates of pay, to pay their share of the cost. And providers can play a role in urging the states to pay their full share.
“All governments must meet their share of the funding responsibility –– but our commitment is not conditional on the decisions other governments now take.
“Because we believe in equal pay – we know this is the right thing to do.”
The ASU has echoed the PM’s call for ‘whole of government’ action and for full state and territory government support.
“We are now calling on all other parties in this historic case to also support these pay rates,” Ms White said.
“…Our ASU members are now asking their state governments to step up and give them the recognition that is long overdue so they do not have to live on poverty wages.”
UnitingCare Australia welcomed the PM’s commitment to fund SACS wage increases.
National director, Lin Hatfield Dodds, said staff must be paid adequately for the essential work they do.
Labelling today’s funding announcement a “watershed moment”, Ms Dodds has also called for the states and territories to step up and pay their share.
“All governments must work with the sector to find sufficient funds to ensure vital social services can continue.
“The proposed commencement date of 1 December 2012 and the longer lead time for full implementation means the sector can plan for the increase in costs.
“…We have been working with the federal government’s Working Group to ensure the pay rise can be delivered without cutting vital social services.
“We will work with all stakeholders in the months ahead to ensure those increases are adequately and equitably funded so vulnerable and disadvantaged Australians get access to the services they need.”
A win for SACS workers is a win for all of aged care
Gillard’s support follows on from the full bench’s ruling in the case in May this year that women working in the SACS industry were not being paid the same as their male counterparts for the same or comparable work (read AAA article about the ruling in May).
This, the FWA said, was because the majority of SACS roles involve caring work which, although discriminatory, is considered women’s work and of a lesser value than male-orientated duties.
Today’s commitment by the federal government is therefore seen as a major step forward for total gender pay equality because women form the majority of employees working in the SACS industry and in the health sector overall.
Health and Community Services Union (HACSU) was one of the many unions covered by the ASU’s application.
The Tasmanian HACSU branch’s assistant state secretary, Tim Jacobson, said he is not only “over the moon” with the PM’s announcement but today could rate as “one of the happiest days of my working life”.
“The reality is that what we have here is a major decision in the context that this is the first national decision made over the last 20 years in relation to gender equity,” said Mr Jacobson.
“Where others have tried and failed, we have succeeded. There is not a prouder day in that context.
“It is a testament into the work a lot of workers have put into this case.
“I think what we have seen is an industry that will grow and flourish that will attract other staff.”
Mr Jacobson believes that the repercussions of this test case will most certainly flow-on into other sectors and industries, including the rest of the aged care sector.
“The circumstances that exist in this case can be applied throughout the aged care sector. They also provide a lead into an [increase in] rates for the aged care sector.
“The principles that exist in this case could equally be applied in [residential] aged care because it is predominantly a female profession.
“It is, in our view, something that would need to be tested but [residential aged care workers] are historically underpaid on basis of gender equity as well. We are hopeful that, in terms of the Productivity Commission’s recommendation and the expected government response, we are able to essentially pursue the pay equity agenda across the residential aged care sector as well.”
One of aged care’s key unions, United Voice, has also applauded the federal government’s announcement but put on record its desire to have the Commonwealth take a similar stand for pay increases in residential aged care.
“However, they are also a predominately female sector, and they have been continually undervalued and underpaid for the important work that they do,” national secretary of United Voice, Louise Tarrant, said.
“United Voice members across the country applaud the government for taking a stand for gender equality and for recognising that there are industries that are undervalued because of the makeup of the workforce.”
“This is a historic moment that recognises that not all industries are the same—or valued the same. In fact, as research shows, on average, women are paid nearly 20 per cent less than men.”
“United Voice members in other sectors, such as aged care, are also undervalued, and it’s time for the federal government to recognise them as well.”
The Equal Pay test case is scheduled for final hearings on 28 November, 7 December and 8 December.
To keep up-to-date with the case, visit FWA’s website by clicking here.