We’ve had the decision: now to the difficult work of achieving equal pay

When surpluses are the magic touchstone for governments, it will be hard to push for wage justice. AAP

Today unions are organising events to reinforce the need for changes to the pay rates of employees in primarily feminised jobs.

The partial decision by Fair Work Australia last month in the social and community services (SACS) case covers community service workers and recognises that their award pay rates have been reduced by being in a feminised industry.

The traditional views of caring define these tasks as primarily unpaid household-based responsibilities that are undertaken for love, now somewhat shifted into paid roles.

This assumption has had two effects: one is that such “services” result from somehow natural feminised attributes that are not learned skills; the other is that the performance of such roles brings its own rewards, something I’ve heard referred to as “psychic capital”.

The causes of pay inequality can be argued, and will be, but the findings so far acknowledge that pay rates in this industry are affected by gendered assumptions.

FWA has called for more information to use in deciding what type of pay rise would be necessary to comply with the equal pay responsibilities the organisation has written in its Act.

So far, so good. But the big unspoken “elephant” is another defining feature of most of the organisations that offer these services: these services are usually government funded.

They share this characteristic with other replacements of unpaid female household tasks such as child care or other personal services.

Those who need these services usually do not have the capacity to pay the costs involved, so the providers are dependent on quite large subsidies to cover the often high staffing and labour costs involved.

These jobs have also professionalised, as skills of care have been identified and now are a part of VET and tertiary qualifications. Pay rates are very low compared with other skilled areas that are not similarly affected by a gender bias in evaluating their value.

The problem of redressing this inequity is that employers cannot afford to raise the pay rates of their employees without cutting back on services/hours.

This problem comes from the high proportion of labour costs in such organisations’ budgets and the inability of finding savings as budgets are already tight.

Whatever the decision, there is already an agreement that it will be phased in over five years. However, even such gradual changes requires increased subsidies from the government funding bodies to maintain current levels of service and the required pay rises.

So far no government has made a clear commitment to fund such increases. The sector cuts across the various levels of government so the co-operation of federal, state and territory governments will be needed.

There is some rhetoric supporting the right to equal pay from the welfare sector employers but some concerns from funders and other employers that this change could flow on to other feminised occupations.

The one positive move was a Commonwealth initiative to set up a taskforce to look at the implementation.

It is chaired by a Parliamentary Secretary, Jacinta Collins, and has bureaucrats from all states and territories, and a minority of NGO representatives.

This group has just met and the media release does not give much hope that the serious money question will be given any priority!

The media release on the equal pay group’s first meeting’s communiqué finished with the following statement:

“The 19-member group today met for the first time and expressed its commitment to closing the gender pay gap in Australia. The group has the following functions. It will: • Conduct a mapping exercise to identify existing research and analysis undertaken in the SACS sector that may be of assistance in assessing the potential implications of the case; • Share information about the funding arrangements in the SACS sector and how service providers may be affected by potential wage cost pressures arising from the case; • Share information about the likely impact of the case on costs borne by SACS service providers; • Identify possible strategies for addressing any implications flowing from the case; • Work towards a whole of government approach to identify relevant agreed principles.”

It needs to be noted here that the group has no representatives from the consumers or target groups served by these workers, per se, nor is there any independent feminist organisation to keep gender on the agenda.

The unions are there to cover the workers and the Australian Council of Social Services (AC0SS) will do its best to support the cause of fairness - but it has a broad brief and a strong bond to the providers of services.

The other three welfare groups are basically employers who have to deal with their competing clients and workers needs.

To ensure the issues are properly addressed, the needs of the client groups, again mainly women, require more coverage as their interests are not necessarily the same as the workers.

There are issues of level of services and the quality of staffing that need to be kept in mind. One problem is that these jobs are so often underpaid that turnover is high and recruitment difficult.

The tight funding also means that workers often work unpaid hours and burn out, so clients lose out both ways.

That is why increased funding for the wage rises is really the only way to go but that is not apparent in the report of the meeting.

The media release fails to mention funding at all. Quoting Senator Collins, it states: “The role of the Community Sector Wages Group is to examine how to manage the potential implications of pay increases which may be awarded by Fair Work Australia”.

In the next sentence Senator Collins places the emphasis on the sector, not the money.

“The Gillard Government is committed to supporting a sustainable and effective social and community services sector. The group discussed how the sector may be affected by cost pressures and subsequent funding implications that may flow from the wage case.” Very bland!

In a time when surpluses are the magic touchstone for responsible governments, it will be hard to push for wage justice.

The problem is that service cutbacks are not usually acceptable to workers in areas like domestic violence and there will be pressure once again to not push for wage justice.

The end result will be serious problems in retaining and recruiting new workers. But hey! What’s new in this sector?