Women must spoil for a fight to win equal pay
Illustration: Matt Davidson
After more than five years of a federal Labor government, the gender pay gap is hovering at 17.5 per cent. This is higher than under John Howard. For example, in 2004, the gap was 15 per cent. Five years of Labor in power has seen it widen by about 2.5 per cent to 17.5 per cent where it now appears to be stuck.
Some argue the pay gap is because women take time off to have babies. Certainly, capitalism gets the next generation of workers cheap, mainly through the unpaid work of women, including unpaid leave. That raises a wider question.
What sort of society punishes women for having children, and punishes them so severely economically that their average lifetime earnings are at least $1 million less than men's? Perhaps the answer is a society that puts profit before people.
This could be addressed by paying working-class women a real living wage and superannuation contributions during maternity leave; by providing free child care, by setting up communal kitchens, house-cleaning brigades and the like. That would mean taxing employers to pay for benefits they and their female workers receive.
Some of the pay gap difference is structural. Women work in industries such as teaching and nursing which traditionally have been not as well paid because of poor union coverage. Employers, often state governments, think they can appeal to women workers as nurturers and pay them less.
It is public schools and hospitals and their largely female workforces that bear the brunt of governments' ''responsible'' budgeting programs.
Yet when these female-dominated workplaces fight back with strikes and other industrial action they can beat government restrictions and win big wage rises and better conditions. Nurses in Victoria in 1986 went on strike and after 50 days won all their demands. The government caved in the face of militant strike action.
One of the consequences of the destruction of rank and file organisation in unions and the collapse in strikes in the past three decades has been an individualisation of work. This means two things. In some industries, such as building, there is a tendency for employees to be re-badged as contractors. Often no award applies.
And, even if there is an award, after three decades of collaboration with the bosses many unions are not strong enough to police and enforce awards and enterprise agreements. Labor's restrictive industrial relations laws - WorkChoices lite - further hamstring unions wanting to enforce pay equity.
The gender pay gap is systemic. The battle for equal pay has to keep being won. The fight has to continue.
The campaign for equal pay in the 1960s was militant, put the topic on the agenda and in 1969 won formal equality. Maybe militancy is the answer to winning equal pay in reality today.
There have been platitudes from Prime Minister Julia Gillard about what Labor did for social and community service workers. There is less to this than meets the eye.
These 150,000 workers, of whom 120,000 are women, won pay increases of 23 to 45 per cent to be phased in over eight years. Fair Work Australia found their low pay was a consequence of their gender and that they were not receiving equal pay for comparable work to that carried out in non-female dominated industries. On top of that the workers will receive the annual wage review increase each year. This is the roughly CPI-related wage increase for workers on the minimum wage and those whose wages are set in relation. The equal pay increases will thus be eroded in time - it is what the phase-in is designed to do - and by the fact the CPI increases do not match general wage increase and are often as much as 2 per cent below it.
Further, employers in the social services sector will push for smaller wage increases in enterprise negotiations to offset the equal pay increase. They will try to limit normal wage increases to just annual wage review amounts, thus cutting their wages bill by up to 2 per cent a year , undermining the equal pay increase.
The Gillard government has set aside $2.8 billion to fund the increase for its employees in social services and those covered by its funding arrangements. The Liberal states and territories have not agreed to fund the increase and have tried to limit the cost by sacking staff, getting rid of entitlements and limiting ''normal'' pay increases to 2.5 per cent or thereabouts.
For example, there are 30,000 social services workers in New South Wales. The O'Farrell Liberal government made no provision in its budget to cover their equal pay increase. Without funding, these workers will not receive the awarded increases in full, and as experience is showing will also pay for it with job losses and entitlement cuts.
Social services workers ran a campaign for equal pay. But it was mainly demonstrations, rhetoric about winning public support and running a case in Fair Work Australia under Labor's industrial laws.
Because they didn't strike, as the nurses did in 1986, their victory is less secure and their gains less real. They haven't won real equality. They've won some pay increases.
Nurses and teachers in various states last year struck or are still fighting against their governments. The nurses in Victoria again were particularly strong and militant and forced a back-down by the Baillieu government .
As luck would have it I was reading a women's liberation manifesto published in March 1973. It argued that women were economically oppressed because they did full work for half-pay and full-time in the home unpaid. It called, among other things, for women's control over their bodies, free 24-hour community-controlled child care, equal job opportunities and an end to low pay.
Their demands are still relevant and needed today. The fact they haven't been won shows the problems are systemic and only a massive fight by workers as workers can win equality both in the workplace and society.
They won't be won by being polite to bosses and governments whose priorities are profits, not people. A militant industrial response from workers and their unions to the systemic gender pay gap has the best chance of improving the lives of women at work and more generally in society.
That is a fight that must of necessity take on the Labor government for which the bosses and their profits are more important than equal pay.
The first step in that process must be for workers in low-paid and female-dominated industries to organise to smash the glass ceiling of low and unequal wages. That won't be easy but women workers in the past have done it.
It's time for a real industrial campaign for equal pay. Don't be too polite, girls, don't be too polite.
>> John Passant is a PhD student at the Australian National University. He blogs at enpassant.com.au.