Dancing in the streets for equal pay

22 October 2012 | Posted In: #117 Spring 2012, Community Sector, Employment, Human Service Delivery, Sector Support, | Author: Emily Mayo

By Emily Mayo

EARLIER THIS YEAR, Barry O’Farrell made me give $88 to Clover Moore. It’s a bit of a long story, and it has all got to do with the equal pay case and campaign run by the Australian Services Union (ASU). It goes a little like this:

In 2010, women in Australia earned, on average, 18 percent less than men. The gender pay gap had stagnated since the 1970s, and all the equal pay cases run in the Howard years had failed in the courts. The community didn’t really ‘get’ the gap. People thought the struggle for pay equity was won: men and women got paid the same for doing the same job.

The introduction of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) saw a small change in the provisions relating to equal remuneration, with the concept of ‘comparable work’ appearing for the first time in the legislation.

The non-government community services sector, born out of volunteerism and the desire of groups and individuals to ‘do-good’, had over the years been increasingly contracted by governments to provide essential community services. The sector took over more and more of the work of the State. After all, they were the cheap alternative.

The workers in the sector were, and still are, employed to care for those down on their luck: the homeless, kids gone off the rails, victims of domestic violence, those tangled up in the criminal justice and child protection systems, and people with drug and alcohol issues; those who are isolated, alone.

The work is often invisible, behind closed doors, and with outcomes, perhaps, intangible. Workers in the sector are largely female – the work itself is feminised – and so, the blokes who do it, get paid poorly too.

I used to work in the community services sector. I couldn’t count the number of times when people asked me what I did for a living. “Wow, that must be so rewarding”, they’d say. The upward inflection at the end of their sentence would let me know the only answer they wanted to hear was: “yes, yes, it is.” And yes, yes, it was. But, while it’s rewarding to say you do something ‘good’ for a living, that you go to work to ‘care’, that doesn’t mean you should be paid very badly to do it.

To cut a long story short, in 2010, off the back of an extraordinary win for a group of Queensland community workers; the introduction of the Fair Work Act; the community services sector facing a workforce crisis and the workers working with the poor facing poverty themselves, ASU members launched an equal pay case and campaign.

They rallied, they danced, they petitioned, they lobbied, they educated the community, they outed themselves and their work, they demanded attention, they ran a superb case in Fair Work Australia (FWA) and, in February this year, they won.

The Full Bench of FWA, in a majority decision, found the work was feminised; they found the work was undervalued and they found the value of the work to be comparable to similar work done in the public sector.

They decided the remedy: pay increases of something in the order of 19 to 40 percent to be delivered in nine equal instalments over eight years. They said pay increases were to start on 1 December 2012.

The ASU worked for months to make an order – to give effect to the decision – that could be supported by the funding bodies (governments) and employers, at the same time as delivering significant pay increases to workers – and achieving, as the court had decided, equal pay.

The order went back into the court and the case concluded, but, not before there was one last flurry of campaigning – as the NSW Government and big business ran a last ditch effort to try and stop NSW workers’ increases until the rest of the country caught up – and ASU members saved the last dance for Barry. What a week it was! The deadline for support for the order was 4.30pm on Monday. The deadline for opposition was 4.30pm on Wednesday. ASU members got their dancing shoes on big style – launching a last ditch round of actions targeting those who they believed were going to oppose.

The NSW Government was bombarded with messages. In Lismore, Newcastle, the Blue Mountains and Wollongong hundreds of ASU members took action to call for the NSW Government’s support. In Lismore, they danced outside National MP, Thomas George’s office. In the Blue Mountains, Liberal MP, Roza Sage, was very ‘nice’ but, could not confirm that the NSW Government supported community workers getting pay increases now. And, with that the opponents made their submissions. Big business representatives, who have little to no representation in the sector, and the NSW Government stood together – failing to show support for NSW workers.

There was no sign of Barry at 6am on that Thursday morning, the day before our last day in court, at the Matthew Talbot when I went to meet with the workers there. The Matthew Talbot is a large hostel for men who are homeless in Kings Cross. It’s located under the shadows of FWA; an irony not missed on me. There was no sign of him at 2.30pm either, when I returned to meet with the afternoon shift workers.

As I walked back down the Talbot lane, the meeting done, seeing all the men sitting along the sunny bit of the gutters, I imagined all of those lawyers from big business and the government, up above in FWA, looking down at the Talbot the next day as they stood to speak in opposition to the pay rises, and as I did, I imagined shadows taking away the sunny spots below and the lawyers not noticing, let alone caring.

And, it was at this moment I got my $88 parking ticket.

FWA sat the next morning. And, by 1pm, it was all done. The bench heard from both sides. And then we had to wait to see if the dancing was really done and wage justice won.

On June 22, FWA ruled in favour of community workers’ pay rises. It’s done. We won. That day I smiled. I had a small cry. I took a deep breath and thought, right, now what?


Originally posted on Emily’s blog, Say It On Sunday – a week’s worth of words.

Emily works for the ASU NSW and ACT (Services) Branch. Views expressed on the blog and republished in Inner Sydney Voice are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASU.

Originally published in Inner Sydney Voice, Issue 116, Spring 2012