Last month Social and Community Service workers achieved an historic victory. The Australian Services Union (ASU), who represents workers in the sector, won a case in Fair Work Australia (FWA) forcing the tribunal to acknowledge that caring work is undervalued because it is deemed ‘women’s work’.
Over the past couple of years ASU members have held a number of spirited actions demanding equal pay and highlighting the fact that even in the 21st century the fight for women’s equality is far from over. The enthusiasm and persistence of the workers who have participated in these actions has been the key strength of the campaign so far.
FWA has ruled that the minimum wages of Social and Community Service workers must be brought up to par with their counterparts in government services. While this legal victory is an important first step, there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that this decision is turned into a reality.
For example it is estimated that the cost of implementing this reform would be in excess of $2 billion. In order to implement these pay rises the government will have to increase funding to the not-for-profit organisations where the bulk of Social and Community Service workers are employed.
But far from looking to pump money into services, governments at both a State and Federal level are currently making cuts. Bringing budgets into surplus is the mantra of the day and this will become even more pronounced as the economic crisis gets worse. In other words it is not ruled out that future governments claim that the reform is just simply unaffordable.
Disappointingly, Fair Work Australia rejected the unions’ proposed timeframe for the implementation of pay rises. It instead ruled that they could be phased in over an 8 year period. Again this leaves the government plenty of time to go back on their promises. For example in 2009 Social and Community Service workers in Queensland won a similar case with the Labor State government promising a swift implementation. Labor then tried to back flip on their promise and was only forced to retreat because of another union campaign.
While the pay rises can seem impressive at between 19 and 41 percent, over 8 years this only equates to between 2.3 and 5.1 percent a year. Given cost of living pressures it will be important for Social and Community Service workers to also fight hard to ensure that regular annual pay rises are won over and above that amount.
The problems however are not just with the government. In another Queensland example, charity bosses were found to be withholding the increased funds that were given to them by the government for the purpose of increasing wages. This raises broader issues about who owns and controls these services and how these services are run.
Why, for example, are such crucial services left in the hands of private employers? The reason governments outsourced this work in the first place was to save money. While the pay gap is now coming back to haunt them issues relating to implementation, the quality of service and staffing levels remain.
One problem that will be faced is that it is not ruled out that the private employers choose to reduce staff or services rather than passing on the pay rises. Private employers should not be trusted with society’s welfare: these services need to be brought into public hands and under democratic control. After all, it is impossible to fully control these services if they remain in private hands.
While the FWA decision should be used as a benchmark, a continuation of the struggle in the workplaces and within the community will be required to carry it through. While ASU members should be proud of the campaign so far the struggle for women’s rights and equal pay is still not over.