Senate debates

Tuesday, 5 July 2011


Workplace Relations

6:51 pm

Photo of Mark FurnerMark Furner (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise this evening to add some dialogue around what is happening in respect to the Australian Services Union equal pay campaign. The full bench of Fair Work Australia handed down an interim decision in the Australian Services Union equal remuneration case for social and community service workers on 16 May 2011. I would like to reflect on that important interim decision—a decision only possible as a result of this Labor government's introduction of the Fair Work Act and overturning of the previous government's Work Choices legislation. It is a historical decision that we should all remember is only possible as a result of our government introducing fair and reasonable industrial relations laws in this country. While FWA found there is gender based undervaluation, it has requested further submissions, particularly around the quantum of pay increases and estimates of the cost of such a decision. The federal government has indicated that it will provide submissions, which are due on 8 July.

The ASU sought the Queensland Services Union pay equity rates in its application for an equal remuneration order. The QSU pay equity rates were awarded to social and community services workers in Queensland in the state jurisdiction in 2009. The QSU decision resulted in wage increases of between 18 and 38 per cent for those workers.

To give some background to the nature of the industry, it comprises approximately 200,000 workers across Australia, over 80 per cent of whom are women. It is estimated, based on ABS figures, that there are 38,000 SACS workers in Queensland. Very broadly, the industry can be divided into the following sectors: disability services, youth and children's services, community centres, women's services, family support services, community legal centres, home and community care services, drug and alcohol services, community housing services, specialist health services, peak organisations, Indigenous services, tenancy services and mental health services.

Reflecting briefly on the Queensland case, it received submissions through a variety of sources, including employees. One particular employee, from Micah Projects, indicated:

The impact of the 'Fisher' wage increase decision in Queensland has made working in the Community Sector much more sustainable for me. I feel that my work has now been valued in a financial way, making the decision to stay within the sector much more viable. I have been offered a number of similar positions outside of the sector, where the salary package has been more attractive. I have chosen to stay within the sector previously due to my values & beliefs, however, now my decision can also be based on a reasonable wage.

They went on to say:

The increase in award has given me the freedom to remain in a job that I really enjoy, and feel very committed to.

One employer group, the Queensland Council of Social Services, indicated:

… management has noticed a marked improve­ment in the number and quality of applicants received through those processes, including a number of applicants who have never worked in the sector before.

The ASU Queensland branch secretary, Kath Nelson, said:

Community Services workers are over­whelmingly female and not industrially aggressive—being focused instead on providing assistance to disadvantaged individuals, families and communities.

Kath Nelson went on to say:

The Queensland decision was an historic one which has significantly improved the wages of workers in this female dominated industry who work under difficult conditions to provide the very important services that support individuals and communities in situations of disadvantage. The wage rates we won in Queensland should apply to all the workers in this industry across Australia.

We signed a heads of agreement with the union in 2009. It provides for the referral of all Queensland SACS organisations to the federal IR system, it has the Commonwealth's support for an equal remuneration case for SACS workers, and the ASU agrees to a phase-in period of up to five years for any significant wage increases achieved through the equal remuneration case. Naturally, evidence was provided by academics, specialists and individual employees—and the list goes on.

The equal remuneration decision is an interim decision in the equal remuneration case handed down on 16 May 2011 by the full bench of Fair Work Australia. It determined that the work of SACS workers is undervalued when compared to similar work done in the public sector and in local government. It determined that SACS workers are entitled to a remedy to the extent that the undervaluation is attributable to gender. It agreed that care work is gender based work. It asked for more information in relation to the value that should be attached to the work, the degree to which the undervaluation is gender based and the cost of any order made by the tribunal and raised its concern that, if an order would cost jobs, this could be taken into account by the tribunal. It expects more precise statements of costs of the claims from the parties since the information provided by governments was generally unsatisfactory. It also indicated that the decision places an emphasis, implied rather than stated, on the need for the parties to hold discussions, which the federal government will be doing with the union and other parties.

When the interim decision was handed down, the ASU Queensland branch secretary, Kath Nelson, said:

When Fair Work Australia hands down its final decision, it will have an enormous impact on Community Services Workers in this country. The benefits of providing decent wage rates will directly benefit the quality of services being provided to the disadvantaged.

She went on to say:

Finally—a fair go for those who make Australia fairer!

Labor governments, particularly in Queensland, are active in this area. The equal remuneration principle was established in Queensland in 2001, so it would not have been possible to run the QSU pay equity case in Queensland under a Liberal-National Party state government. The Queensland Labor government committed $414 million in supplementary funding to the sector in the wake of the decision. There would have been scope for an LNP government to oppose the case or not commit the necessary funding once the decision had been handed down. Federally, of course, the ASU would not have been able to run its national equal remuneration case without the federal Labor government. In the Fair Work Act, enacted by this government, the change from 'work of equal value' to 'work of equal or comparable value' made this case possible. The federal government's support of the case is relevant. The Labor government has run a supportive case. Historically, workers in the social and community services sector have faced opposition from governments and employers when pursuing industrial rights.

The Gillard government is committed to achieving pay equity in Australia. Having changed the industrial law to make this historic case possible, we remain firmly committed to working with unions, providers and all state and territory governments to help Fair Work Australia determine an appropriate wage increase. As part of its recent decision, Fair Work Australia has provided parties with the opportunity to provide further submissions to assist it in formulating a remedy. The government negotiated an agreement with the ASU before the case commenced to facilitate the claim and to secure a long phase-in period for significant wage increases in the event that they were awarded by the independent umpire. The government is committed to working through the funding implications of any increase in wages awarded as a result of this case in partnership with the affected unions, employers and the states and territories. To achieve this, we have estab­lished a new national consultative group, the Community Sector Wages Group, CSWG, which will examine how to manage the implications of this historic case. The CSWG is chaired by Senator Jacinta Collins, Parliamentary Secretary for Workplace Relations, and met for the first time with the union and parties on Monday, 4 July.

The funding arrangements in the sector are complex. The Commonwealth does not directly employ anyone covered by the claim and funding is provided by the private sector, the not-for-profit providers as well as Commonwealth and state and territory governments. For female workers to achieve equal pay all of these groups must work together. The Commonwealth directly funds less than 30 per cent of the sector. The Commonwealth already contributes significant funding to state and territory governments through national partnership payments and other payments. The govern­ment has substantially increased these payments to state and territory governments, and the majority of direct SACs funding comes from and through state and territory governments.

We will continue as a federal Labor government to make sure fair and reasonable industrial laws are applied. This equal pay test case would not have been possible under the coalition's Work Choices regime.