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The Price We Pay When We Won’t Pay the Price

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest”.

Benjamin Franklin

What a long and arduous journey pay equity has been for the Queensland Community Services sector.  In 1974 the principle of equal pay for men and women was first introduced to Queensland’s industrial legislation.  Pay equity was again provided for in the Industrial Relations Act 1999 and was cemented as a priority by the Queensland Inquiry into Pay Equity by the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission in 2000.

Nevertheless wages for the predominately female workforce In the Queensland Community services sector remained appallingly inadequate. The seeds of change finally appeared likely to do more than blow in the wind when the Queensland branch of the Australian Services Union together with Peak body organisations and key stakeholders in the sector ran the pay equity case.

In a landmark decision in May of 2009 the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission found that the work of the sector was undervalued for historical reasons and because it was dominated by women.  The Commission awarded pay increases of between 18 – 39 % to bring community services workers more into line with government colleagues and professionals in other sectors.   The Queensland government came on board and significantly funded the pay equity.

So finally – some 35 years post Queensland’s introduction of the pay equity principle in industrial legislation – workers in the social and community services were awarded improved pay conditions.  Not excellent pay conditions, not even highly competitive pay conditions but far more fair and reasonable pay conditions than ever before recognised in the history of the social and community service sector.

The Queensland pay equity win was historic and the cause of jubilation for the sector.  Finally the seeds of change had been planted, fertilised and well watered to ensure positive momentum for the sector with substantially increased capacity to attract and retain highly skilled staff.

Then along came the land slide that put into question the 2009 land mark decision and made it clear that perhaps our solid foundations for pay equity were not firmly rooted after all.  Quite the contrary. From 1 January 2010, the Queensland Government’s regulatory power with regard to industrial relations was transferred to the Commonwealth Government.  As a result, the Queensland Government no longer has a direct role in regulating wages and employment conditions for the majority of workers.

What did all this mean for Queensland?  It meant mass confusion and further inequity as some employers paid the new award levels based on equity and many didn’t.  It meant government releasing funding dollars for improved wages to organisations no longer mandated to pay wages under this Queensland Award and Queensland decision given the federal jurisdiction that such matters now resided within.

Enter now into the mix the National Pay Equity case.  This case is now being heard in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission.  Currently underway, the hope is that a similar finding to the Queensland case will mean pay equity across the sector.  Again though this a further hoop to jump, another long wait and more uncertainty in pay equity.  And more years for workers to be grossly underpaid!!!

So where are we now?  We’re waiting…. again.  Now that the Queensland Industrial Commission have heard our case and found that wages and conditions are indeed discriminatory, we now by the virtue of transferred  industrial powers, await the national commission to do (or not to do) the same.

So WHY are we waiting?

Is it ok that after years of research and days of hearings and months of deliberation that led to the finding that conditions for workers in the Queensland community services sector are discriminatory and inadequate, that we continue with that practice?

Is it ok that many organisations funded to pay the Queensland Award pay scales to their staff passed on a different award with considerably reduced pay rates or passed on no increases at all?

Is it ok to continue to ask staff of this sector to be paid the historically low wages because there is currently nothing legally binding to force employer’s hands to fairness and equity?

All this will soon change and the enforcements will again become binding – all being well in the national pay equity case – that is.  Do we as a sector that prides itself on social justice, fairness and equity really think it is ok to ‘wait and see’ instead of acting to do what is fair and equitable for our workforce?

As a sector struggling to attract and retain staff is it not high time and long overdue for us to genuinely value and support our staff and ensure fair and equitable pay and conditions?
And perhaps most significantly:  as a sector are we prepared to carry out a practice clearly found to be discriminatory in the Queensland Industrial Commission???   WE know the practice is discriminatory – we’ve been arguing that for years.  We now have the back up of the Queensland Commission – are we really going to cop out on a technicality caused by the transfer of responsibilities from a state to a federal body?

Employers in this sector can all elect to honour the pay levels outlined by the Queensland Industrial Commission in the pay equity win.  We know that it is becoming increasingly difficult to attract and retain well qualified and skilled staff in our sector.  So the options are clear:

1.       Pay up and agree to fair wages to be competitive in putting our best foot forward in ensuring a skilled and competent workforce or

2.       Lower the standards, qualifications and skills required by our workforce to keep paying the same discriminatory and inadequate wages.

How fair is that to Queensland’s vulnerable children and families who rely on the competence and quality of our community services organisations and workers?
As Kofi Annan states: “gender equality is critical to the development and peace of every nation.”  Pay equity is a significant issue for employers and employees in the community services sector.  Decisions made here will have significant impact on the current and future quality of service delivery across Queensland.

Lorraine Dupree – Policy and Research Manager, PeakCare

The date of our National Day of Action is Wednesday, 8th of June. Watch PeakCare’s website for more information!

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Given the complexity of the work that many workers have to do these days it is important to ensure that we adequately pay, train and support workers in the community services sector. The figures show that soon many experienced workers will be leaving the sector and we have not really addressed the urgent need to support newer workers to take on these sophisticated roles. Better pay will help support the self education and supervision that we need to give to retain the staff at the front line so that clients can benefit from skilled intervention.
    We need to support any action which supports the drive towards suitable remuneration in the sector.

    March 23, 2011
  2. I loved your questions Lorraine, they are so pertinent and timely. It is past time where we collectively advocate for social justice and equity for ourselves, as well as our clients! I once had a mentor who used to say, ” It is impossible to secure the emancipation of others, without first securing your own.” Point taken!

    – Fiona

    March 23, 2011
  3. Matt #

    I think you have written about this issue really well, Lorraine. I think what you have have said is extremely important. It would be deflating to lose the rights that so many people have battled for, over such a long time, and come so close to achieving. It’s not okay for people to experience discrimination in the sector due to gender. Like you questioned, is it okay for an industry that values social justice to wait and see what happens? It sounds like an issue we need to pursue for ourselves and our clients.

    March 23, 2011
  4. In an era of ageing population and ageing workforces I cannot help thinking there is a logic in this delay. Australian governments seek to design programs with an under-paid and unpaid workforce to do the caring. Meanwhile a poorly designed and chaotically structured economy increases the complexity of the environment and the vulnerablity of Australian families trapped in poverty not of their making. I doubt that there is an independent umpire – cricket is not cricket these days and I think industrial relations is an umpire-free zone. Japan won’t buy our uranium and we were betting on that! Our major food growing regions are in dire straits and too much rain is never a good sign.

    March 24, 2011
  5. We are a group of volunteers and starting a new scheme in our community.
    Your web site provided us with valuable info to work on.

    You have performed a formidable process and our entire
    group can be grateful to you.

    May 5, 2013

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