What About Doing Something About Equal Pay?

Women voters are a hot topic this election campaign – so why isn’t there more talk about equal pay, asks Kath McDermott

The Coalition is unfortunately correct in the assumption in its parental leave policy that women’s earnings will be lower than men’s. It should not be comfortable with that assumption, having had, after all, 11 years in Government to do something about it.

Trend data on the gap between women’s and men’s earnings shows that, after generally becoming narrower over the 1980s and 1990s, the wage differential has widened. We are now close to being back where we started in 1983.

Chart 1: Weekly gender pay gap

Source: ABS Average Weekly Earnings (Cat. No. 6302.0), trend data.

The Coalition’s equal pay legislation was—as the HPM case demonstrated in 1998 —unworkable. Labor’s revisions to that legislation in the Fair Work Act are now being tested in the equal remuneration case for social and community service (SACS) workers. The Gillard Government is supporting the claim that the SACS industry is female-dominated, that work in the sector is undervalued, and that there is a link between these two facts.

Whatever the outcome of the SACS case, it will take more than changing one award — however important — to deliver pay equity for women. There are many methods of setting pay, but what is common to them all is that the responsibility for valuing skills and knowledge, responsibilities, and working condition fairly rests with the employer. All of the parties contesting this election should commit to policies to get employers to act on equal pay.

The Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency monitors equal opportunity activities of larger employers (of 100 or more) and gives feedback on how they are tracking. The Agency and its legislation have recently been reviewed and it is time to strengthen both. The Agency’s monitoring activities should be expanded to cover equal pay reviews from all employers covered by the Act, and it should be able to track any follow-up from those reviews. The legislation should be amended to make it necessary to reach a minimum equity standard to avoid being named and shamed, and that standard should be progressively raised. And the 4500 relevant employers who don’t even report (pdf) to the Agency should be found (an amendment to the Tax Act could help here) and asked to meet their existing and future legislative obligations.