The government will try to "unscramble" the effects of decades of agency-level negotiations as APS-wide pay and conditions talks turn to the issue of pay fragmentation.
The Australian Public Service Commission, unions and agencies will consider the pay disparities between agencies at a bargaining session on May 30, and attempt to develop a mechanism to even out pay across the public service.
Pay disparities have emerged since 1997, when APS-wide bargaining was devolved, and have had lasting impacts on the public service, experts say.
"We know that agencies in particular that have a lot of Indigenous employees, so those Indigenous cultural agencies, they're paid very low and one of them is at the bottom of the pay scales," Sue Williamson, an Associate Professor of Human Resource Management at UNSW Canberra, said.
"We also know that agencies where there are more women than men tend to not do as well either."
An APS6 earning the maximum salary at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies still earns $10,743 less than the equivalent role at Prime Minister and Cabinet, for example.
Meanwhile an APS6 on the highest salary at the National Disability Insurance Agency, which largely comprises women, earns $1604 less than the same position at Defence.
Agencies which have typically had more bargaining power, such as the central agencies (Finance, Treasury and Prime Minister and Cabinet), have awarded employees better pay packets, while others have suffered, Professor Williamson said.
"So what's happening at the moment is that the government is trying to basically unscramble the egg and overturn how bargaining has been conducted for the past quarter of a century," she said.
Public Service Minister Katy Gallagher has identified salary boosts for the lowest paid as a key issue for negotiations, but the government has also noted that achieving pay equity will take multiple rounds of bargaining, with talks taking place every three years.
"We will seek to take initial steps to address the pay levels of certain classifications in our lowest-paid agencies," the Australian Public Service Commission's chief negotiator Peter Riordan said in April.
"We suspect it will take a number of bargaining rounds to more closely align salaries between APS agencies."
Adelaide University employment law expert Professor Andrew Stewart welcomed the move towards unified pay rounds, saying the agency bargaining approach that had prevailed for the past two decades had failed to deliver the innovation or productivity improvements that had been promised.
Professor Stewart said it was likely to take two to three years to move to a centralised pay round model and warned that there will still need to be exceptions because of differences in where people worked and the kinds of jobs they did.
But he said having a single over-arching pay round would save on time and cost for agencies and departments and for unions and workers and would hopefully pave the way to an end to blanket efficiency dividends.
While in principle, efficiency dividends were aimed at achieving productivity improvement, Professor Stewart said that in practice they had just become a mechanism to cut costs, including forgoing the investment needed to improve productivity.
Evening out pay across the sector could help the APS with its attraction and retention problem, making it easier for employees to transfer across agencies.
"People will want to go to those agencies that are higher paid, which means that it's difficult for lower paying agencies to attract people," Professor Williamson said.
"And so if agencies are paying the same, then they will be able to attract people. There won't be that disincentive to not go to social policy agencies or cultural institutions for example."
It will also address the inequities which have emerged, she said. "The fact that Indigenous agencies are paid so low ... it's a travesty," she said.
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