Internationally, Australia has a reasonable record on equal pay says Jenny Doran, (Senior Industrial Officer, ACTU).


We come just under the Scandinavian and Nordic countries (Sweden, Norway, Denmark) in terms of the ratio of female to male wages.


We do much better than America and the United Kingdom.


This is thanks to our centralised wage fixing system.


Comparing minimum wages as set out in our award structure for full-time non-managerial employees, women earn just over 90% of mens earnings.


This figure leaves out the fact that women make up the majority of part-time workers and also the lack of women in senior managerial positions.


Nevertheless, it is a fact to be proud of – and in no small part is thanks to the efforts of people like Zelda.


We tend to gloss over the achievement in 1969 of equal pay for equal work but it was a real victory and one that was fought strenuously by employers. Even after the principle was won in the test case employers in particular industries argued against women getting it. For instance, in the NSW hospitals award it was argued female cooks weren’t doing the same work as male cooks because they didn’t do the heavy lifting.


And the MTIA argued that Process Workers in the metal industry was a predominantly female occupation and therefore did not have access to the principle. This, despite 30% of Process Workers being men at the time.


The Commission in all of these cases rejected the employers arguments.


The 1972 “Equal Pay for Work of Equal Value” test case extended the principles much further.


The effect of these two cases was to reduce the gender gap by about 20%. (19% between 1972 and 1977 Karen Mumford, Working Women : Economics and Reality).


Since then we have only seen an incremental reduction, although to date it has been reducing. This has been thanks to the MRA process which has been underway since 1989.


So when it comes to minimum wages women do all right in Australia. Shows importance of awards. Necessity to fight Reith’s changes.


We do have major problems when it comes to overaward payments. Women earn less than half of the overaward payments than men earn (48.2%). And this applies in all industries and all occupations except in respect to clerical (probably due to Executive Secretaries) and the finance sector. And this gap is increasing rather than decreasing.


Whether overawards matter depends on how significant they are in a particular industry. For industry there are not many overawards paid in community services where lots of women are employed, nor in the retail sector which is the highest employer of women. (17% of all women – 623,000 women).


They are significant in the manufacturing industry which is the fourth largest employer of women (nearly 300,000 women), especially in the metal industry which is why the ACTU has been focusing on that area in its current campaign to utilise the equal remuneration provisions of the Workplace Relations Act.


These provisions were inserted in the Act in 1994. They are based on international equal pay and anti-discrimination conventions.


When the Howard Government amended the industrial legislation it removed these provisions – which is proof of their efficacy despite there being few arbitrated cases (none at the time). Following an intensive campaign by unions and womens groups they were retained in WROLA.


We currently have our first test case in the course of being arbitrated (again). The case shows how hard it is to make gains in equal pay.


The case is against electrical component manufacturer HPM Industries in Sydney. It involves some 300 Process Workers who all earn one rate of pay $413.90, which includes a $27 overaward payment. These women are being compared to seven General Hands who earn between $426 and $443 – overaward payments of $58 to $76.


The women perform general assembly work, some of it quite skilled involving use of hand tools, a range of machines, extensive testing and inspection. They make products that are vital in the public interest like smoke detectors, surge protectors in electric switches and general power points and power boards etc.


The men deliver the components for these products around the factory.


The company is arguing the work of the men is heavier (despite the fact that it is the women who have most workers compensation claims for physical exertion) and that the men’s work is more important to the company.


We are claiming a $30 wage increase for the women Process Workers to take them up to the highest paid General Hand.


We are also claiming that 27 female Packers do work of equal value to 22 male Storepersons. Again, the women are on the same rate of pay ($440.50) and the men are on seven different rates. We are seeking a $77 wage increase for these women.


The men all have access to a three tier wage structure purportedly based on a merit evaluation performed by their supervisors after one year and two years service. The women don’t.


The men who have long periods of service also all have higher rates of pay which appear to be based on service (although the company denies it) and similarly long serving women do not.


The Commission has said, in an initial decision dismissing this application, that it is not enough to show the women are on the same classification nor that according to competency standards (a skills evaluation process contained in the Metal Industry Award) the womens jobs require at least the same, and in most instances, more skills than the men.


We are now embarking on a work value enquiry in order to show that the women’s work is of equal value.


The Commission also said in that first case that the streaming of women into gender segmented jobs in the factory did not amount to indirect discrimination.


Problems facing women in bringing these sorts of cases:



  • lack of transparency in pay systems. At HPM the women – they did not know what the men earnt;




  • it is extremely hard to get this information in the face of company hostility and the Commission did not assist either




  • the company also refused to provide job descriptions of the relevant jobs of both men and women as well.



It has been disappointing that in this case when the skill points supported our claim the Commission has also said this is not enough to show working equal value.


However, we are hopeful that we will be able to show the work is of equal value through a work value inquiry.


Overawards will become much more important in de-regulated, individual contract system. Therefore the outcome of this case is terribly important. The facts show that when employers get a discretion about pay – they continue to be biased against the value of womens work.

Other Problems

Hours of Work


Part-time work regulation under threat. Also increased casualisation, contract labour etc. leading to a secondary labour market developing.


Gender Segmentation


Australian has one of the most sex segregated workforces in the world. The role of Federal Government structures designed to promote a whole range of activities to support equality for women has I think been taken for granted. They are now being dismantled. e.g. Affirmative Action Agency. It does help to have Government assisting to create a positive environment. Sex Discrimination Commissioner.


The struggle continues!


Jenny Doran, Senior Industrial Officer, ACTU. Address to Women’s Trust Forum. Tuesday 7th July, 1998, Victorian Trades Hall Council.