"Cost cutting can disenfranchise a marginalised workforce"June 12th, 2011
A landmark ruling last month by Australia’s recently established workplace tribunal could pave the way for more equal pay for women and men, writes Sean O’Rourke, a 26-year-old Commonwealth Correspondent from Melbourne.
On 16 May, the full bench of the Fair Work Australia tribunal, an independent body established in July 2009, handed down an historic decision regarding equal pay in Australia.
The tribunal found that gender had played an important role in the low wages experienced by the mostly female, non-government, social and community services (SACS) industry.
The tribunal’s finding was based upon the principle of comparable value contained in the Fair Work Act 2009. The Australian Services Union was able to present a case on behalf of SACS workers based on the historically lower wages received by the sector when compared to local and state government employees.
In its ruling, the tribunal found that “there is not equal remuneration for men and women workers for work of equal or comparable value by comparison with workers in state and local government employment”, and that “gender has been important in creating the gap between pay in the SACS industry and pay in comparable state and local government employment”.
Underlying this decision was a history of sectoral neglect. The tribunal noted that since the 1980s, governments have been retreating from direct service delivery, preferring to outsource this work to the SACS industry to enhance cost effectiveness and efficiency in service delivery.
According to the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS), government funding only meets 70% of the full cost of a provided service. In other words, the SACS industry has provided what has traditionally been a function of government for just over two thirds of the cost.
The beneficiaries of this cost cutting have been governments at local, state and federal levels. Conversely, the predominantly female (upwards of 70%) SACS industry has ‘benefitted’ from longer working hours, higher rates of part time and casual employment than comparable sectors and lower wages.
The Fair Work Australia tribunal finding is an important milestone for gender equity in the workforce. Behind this achievement however, lies a broader lesson.
The cost cutting and efficiency drives advocated by governments cannot be pursued at the expense of appropriate remuneration and working conditions for affected industries. Such a policy actively disenfranchises a section of the Australian workforce that works with some of the most marginalised members of the community.
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