Behind the 8 ball
Pay Equity is a hot topic since the national pay equity win of February 1, 2012. This much anticipated outcome followed extensive national campaigning and comes three years after the Queensland pay equity win of 2009. Those of us fortunate enough to have employers who honoured that win in Queensland are now being fully remunerated under the pay equity rates rolled out over the past three years. For our colleagues around Australia and those in Queensland whose employers did not maintain the momentum of our earlier win, it will be eight years before the full financial benefit will be recognised. However, by 2020 workers in our sector will yet again be significantly behind the 8 ball in pay equity.
Unlike many industries, the community services sector is Award driven. As such, it is rare that pay rates or conditions above and beyond Award sanctioned commitments are offered. This adds to the significance of this pay equity win and of the eight year roll out.
The Australian Services Union (ASU) will be advocating a reduction to the phase-in time through funding arrangements with the Federal Government. Whilst thrilled with the win they were disappointed that the six year phase in which was already a compromise was extended to eight years. The ASU maintains that because the wage increases awarded will be on top of the annual wage review (increase to the minimum wage and Modern Awards), the effect of the decision shouldn’t be eroded over the phase-in period.
Last year I penned other blog posts on the topic of pay equity. The price we pay when we won’t pay the price and The Cost of Not Paying the Price outlined the pay equity case; its history and issues for the sector. I’ve been watching the movement in our industry around fair pay for years now. I was a Manager in the NGO sector when the original SACS Award was proclaimed to introduce base wages. I was astounded by many negative responses then and I remain so now that more equitable wages to build our sector’s workforce have been sought and won. It is hard to fathom how an issue such as pay equity in which social and human services professionals currently being paid $45,000 per annum (way below the national average wage) and will be awarded an average of $65,000 by 2020 has created such widespread disdain. Fortunately such antagonistic stances are balanced by enthusiastic applause from many others.
It is perplexing that such backlash includes financial analysts questioning whether or not the tax payer should foot the bill for this pay equity win. The analysis is narrow. Let’s not forget that this win means taking thousands of sector workers into higher tax brackets, off social housing lists and significantly reduces their reliance on welfare. We are well aware of the social costs of our vast population of working poor. Fair pay also enhances life opportunities for children and family members of these staff.
It has been an eye opener reading the many pages of commentary about pay equity. Some entries endorsed the win; many were highly offended by it and considered it sexist. One such comment in response to the many underpaid workers in the community services sector being dual degree qualified was: “A janitor with a degree is still a janitor”. That speaks volumes about the perceptions of the work. There appears to be a lack of public awareness that the role of social workers and human services workers is complex and highly fraught. It requires specific qualifications, skills and on-going professional development and supervision. The complexities of these roles and the impact such personnel have on social well-being needs to be acknowledged. Perhaps this ignorant remark sums up why pay rates have remained so low and staff retention is such an issue for our sector? Research shows that it is not just poor pay that drives staff from child protection and community services; it is also a lack of positive regard for and recognition of the roles undertaken.
The capacity of the child protection and social services sector to attract and retain qualified and skilled staff is waning. The need for this sector to be competitive in a market industry is evident now more than ever before. Whilst other factors such as job satisfaction, respect for the roles and organisational culture are amongst the reasons staff stay with employers, pay rates are of significant importance in ensuring that our most vulnerable Queenslanders receive the quality support services they require.
It’s long overdue that fair pay be awarded to this sector so staunch in its advocacy for others in our community. The fact that most workers have another eight years to wait means it’s also long overdue for sector workers to become their own advocates.
Policy and Research Manager – PeakCare QLD
Click here to read an update from QCOSS