What Equal Pay in the Community Sector Means to Me
24 November 2011 at 9:55 am
Angela Pollard, is the manager of the Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre and a longtime community sector worker. This piece was first published on November 17 2011 in the Northern Rivers Echo and is republished here with permission.
Both my parents were trade union activists and I spent much of my 60s childhood with parents who were either on strike or sacked for fighting for better wages and conditions. Lost wages were so common that I thought it was normal to live off canned food donated by the union fighting fund. All that spam may explain why I became a vegetarian, but that's another story. This story is about the fight for better wages for community sector workers.
My parents both worked in factories where industrial accidents were common and a big part of their activism was about improving worker safety. My mother's skill in describing gruesome industrial accidents ("… then her hair got caught, the scalp was peeled off by the rollers. Luckily we managed to stop the machinery just as it got to her eyebrows…") steered me in the direction of community services rather than industry. Taking my parents' example as my guide, I have spent many years fighting for wage justice, and I can tell you it has been a long time coming.
Apart from a very short stint in private practice (I wasn't very good at billing clients) and a few years in the public service (I drove several supervisors to despair due to my forthright ways), I have always worked in the community sector. In my time I have met many incredibly dedicated and skillful community services workers working in a vast range of welfare programs that are vital to supporting those in our community who need extra assistance. Unless you have lived a charmed life, you or a family member will probably have received assistance from a community worker at some time in your life.
The community services sector provides assistance to people with disabilities, mums and dads struggling to cope with parenting, young people with challenging behaviours, people suffering from drug and alcohol addiction, supporting people with mental ill-health, tenants, homeless people, settling new migrants and refugees, people needing help to sort out their money problems, victims of domestic violence and sexual assault and many others. But until someone needs us, we are generally invisible to the general community and because we never go on strike (sorry mum and dad!) due to concerns about our clients' welfare, governments are under no pressure to increase our wages.
Unfortunately the dedication and skill of community sector workers has not been recognised by our government funding bodies in terms of the wages we are paid. Many of our disability support and youth workers get paid only a dollar or two above the minimum wage. Is their work of less value than dog walkers and supermarket shelf stackers? At our community legal centre, our principal solicitor has the responsibility for our entire legal practice and yet is paid less than a brand new law graduate starting work in the public service.
Our work was once exclusively the province of unpaid mothers, sisters, wives and spinster aunts who cared for the extended family's young, elderly, sick or disabled. Charities also relied on the free work of women volunteers to extend care to community members. In fact it wasn't until the mid 1980s that there was even an award salary paid for community work, so it's no wonder we have struggled to get a decent wage that reflects the skills and responsibilities of our jobs.
In 2009 Queensland community sector workers won a major equal pay case. For the first time, there was a legal ruling that community workers were under-paid anywhere between 18% and 37%, depending on their duties. The judges agreed that this had come about because our sector employs mostly women and our work is under-valued because it is seen as caring work traditionally undertaken by unpaid women. That's a lot of money we have missed out over many years.
Our Australian Services Union then took the opportunity created by the abolition of Workchoices to argue for a Federal Equal Pay Case. It has been running for nearly two years and we are close to a decision. Last week we had a major breakthrough when Prime Minster Gillard announced that her government would support and fund the equal pay claim based on the Queensland rates of pay.
This is fantastic news but given that our sector is also funded by the NSW Government, we could win the case and still face huge shortfalls in our salaries' budgets. We need Mr O'Farrell to announce his support for decent wages for our sector. Anything less will completely undermine the case even if the decision goes in our favour. Community sector management committees would have to pay the wages without having sufficient funds, resulting in reduced service hours and redundancies.
The sting in the tail however, is that like many community sector workers (ours is an aging workforce) I will be retired before the full equal pay remuneration is paid. If the case is made in our favour, payments will commence in December 2012 and then in annual instalments over six years. Luckily I can take the long view of history as I shuffle off to an impecunious old age. Each generation benefits from the battles fought and won in the past; the eight-hour day, award wages, paid annual leave and public holidays, and occupational health and safety laws. I've done my bit!
This piece was first published on November 17 2011 in the Northern Rivers Echo. Angela Pollard is the manager of the Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre.