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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.

Lorraine Dupree

Policy and Research Manager – PeakCare QLD

Click here to read an update from QCOSS

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jill McKay #

    Fantastic blog post Lorraine – hurray ! A voice of reason and an analysis that truly spells the real issue – over 8 years for the pay increase to affect – pah!!! Stoked for the recognition of the sector, grateful for the work of the ASU, but does it REALLY get us any further?

    February 9, 2012
  2. Sandy widderick #

    To bring our pay rise in, in eight years is a disgrace. i have been waiting most of my working life for a descent wage. If they take eight years to bring it in, i still won’t get the rise as i will be retired. What a bad choice i made going to collage to study wefare for such a poor wage.

    February 9, 2012
  3. Thank you for advocating for community workers. The pay is appalling, and eight years is far too long to wait for the pay increase. Did politicians have to wait eight years to receive their recent pay rise to phenomenal rates per annum? As a trained professional community worker, I find it a struggle to continue advocating for other vulnerable people, when I myself, am living in an impoverished situation.

    I did not choose my degree in Community work lightly. It took me many years to decide which degree would compliment my skills and abilities best to enable me to become a qualified professional in my field. I was born a social worker, naturally gifted in helping others, mediating, facilitating growth, and change. I had many years of sacrifice and ‘doing it for the benefit of the community’, or humanity, or the children, or for my family. Having to constantly justify myself as a paid employee, not a volunteer.

    Perhaps this justification is founded on years of community work (caring for children, the aged, the marginalised) being done by women. Community work is therefore seen as women’s work, which we know is undervalued in society. It is not seen as ‘real work’, as it is women’s work, not men’s work. It is not worth paying for, or investing in, as it is just a woman’s role to care for and nurture others. She will do it anyway, even if we do not pay her, so why bother?

    If you think this is a harsh statement, ask yourself how many carers are female? Who cares for the children, disabled, aged, domestic violence survivors, refugees, youth, sick and mentally challenged? What price do we pay them to do this work? What reward is there for them to stay in it without being burnt out by long hours, poor pay rates and a lack of social recognition for their contributions? Community workers say to this, ‘I do it for them. It is not for myself’. It sounds like something a mother would say. A notable position but it doesn’t pay the bills or make any real long term changes to the imbalance in our socio-economic situation as community service professionals.

    Low pay rates may also be attributed to having historical and present connections with ‘good works’ where people do it ‘out of the goodness of their hearts’ or for the long-term spiritual reward. Community services have long been dominantly coordinated and provided by religious bodies. This is problematic in that these institutions have also validated the lack of need for money to perform these services. Priests, nuns, volunteers and church members all provided the necessary community services in the past, relying on donations to meet material but not human resource needs. As governments shift their responsibility from service provision to service funding, outsourcing community services to established organisations with the infrastructure and proven track history is evident. Yet it does not ask the question of whether these services are sustainable, operate proficiently, or even if it is fair.

    As a Sunshine Coast resident for more than twelve years, I have found securing employment very difficult. My skills are in teaching, community and project work, but few are willing to pay for my services – employ me.

    Therefore, I must beg prospective employers to use my exceptional skills and talents free as a volunteer in any capacity they wish. I do not mind the humbling of myself this requires, as I need to be involved with the community, and am very isolated at the moment. Yet, this needs to have a time limit on it. My continued acceptance of not having paid work as a community worker does not challenge the imbalance in our socio-economic situation as community service professionals. I never knew that learning to be a good advocator for others would require me to advocate for myself or for my profession. The socio-economic situation thereby becomes political.

    I strongly ask of all involved in this debate to think long and hard about offering realistic, fair pay rates to community workers. Particularly ones who go to great lengths to self-educate, develop their skills and abilities, and advocate for professional community service practice. A Fair Work policy can only be complete when it is a fair go for all.

    I encourage you all to continue your valuable work with clients, but also to advocate for positive change in our sector. Thanks for reading, and let me know what you think. Best wishes. LSC

    February 9, 2012
  4. Lorraine #

    Thank you all for such considered responses. Linda – yours is a blog post of its own! Please feel free to contribute a guest blog post to PeakCare. We’d love to hear more from you all. Your comments assist us in staying focused on key issues. Pay equity is about so much more than just fair pay. We will continue to raise this matter in its entirety in all relevant arenas. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

    February 26, 2012

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