Pay inequity persists in the workplace

by 03 Apr 2007

In 1969, the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission handed down its first ‘equal pay for equal work’ decision. The effect of this historic decision was to grant women the right to the same pay as their male colleagues for comparable work.

Almost 40 years on and the fight for pay equity in the workplace has certainly come a long way. It is now broadly accepted that equal pay is a basic human right and there are anti-discrimination laws and tribunals equipped to protect the right of women to be treated fairly at work.

Although the pay gap between men and women narrowed significantly in the decades following the ‘equal pay’ decision, pay parity has never yet been reached. The battle for fair and equal pay at work was a battle that I hoped we were coming close to winning, but I have been dismayed by recent statistics that show pay for women has actually declined over recent years, both in real terms and relative to that of men.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) recently released statistics showing Australian women are still earning less than men and that the pay gap is increasing. Average Weekly Earnings figures show there has been a 1.7 per cent increase in the gender pay gap over the last two years.

According to the ABS, in May 2006 Australian women were earning 83.6 cents in the male dollar compared with 85.3 cents in May 2004.

This concerning trend has also been identified by Women in Social and Economic Research (WiSER). The research paper, ‘Australian Workplace Agreements and Gender Equity’, found the gender wage gap amongst non-managerial employees on Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) had widened between 2002 and 2004.

WiSER found that the only exceptions to this alarming trend were in areas not typically dominated by women, like labouring. In areas traditionally dominated by women, the gap had not only widened, but women’s real wages had fallen.

For example, women working in ‘clerical, sales and service’ industries went from earning $1.20 more per hour than men, to earning $3.90 an hour less, relative to men. In real terms, women went from earning an average of $18.30 per hour in 2002 to $14.30 per hour in 2004.

What concerns me most about this growing pay inequity is that it will only get worse under the Government’s WorkChoices legislation. ABS statistics show that women on Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) who work full-time earn on average $2.30 less per hour, or $87.40 less per week based on a standard 38-hour week, than those on collective agreements.

With the Government’s new workplace laws aggressively promoting AWAs and undermining the Awards system, it is only logical that the increasing pay inequity trend will continue into the future with current Government policy.

By Kate Lundy, ACT Labor Senator, Shadow Minister for Local Government, Shadow Minister for Sport, Recreation and Health Promotion