By Iola Mathews OAM, author of Winning for Women: A Personal Story

In June this year, an equal pay case for preschool teachers entered its final stages in the Fair Work Commission. A lot hangs on the outcome, given that only one equal pay case has been successful in Australia in the past 30 years, and many have failed.

In the recent federal election, Labor promised to amend the Fair Work legislation to make it easier to run equal pay cases for under-valued, female-dominated industries. Labor also promised to increase the wages of childcare workers. But Labor lost, and unions and policy-makers are now waiting to see the outcome of the current case.

Run by the Independent Education Union of Australia (IEUA), it aims to give early childhood teachers equal pay with primary school teachers. They have the same university qualifications and are on the same award, but the primary school teachers are paid more, because of enterprise agreements. The teachers’ award goes up to about $70,000, depending on years of experience, while the enterprise agreements go up to around $100,000.

The union has a claim for an Equal Remuneration Order (ERO) as well as a work-value case. They argue preschool teachers (overwhelmingly female) are paid less than male employees who have similar skills, qualifications and responsibilities. The union also argues that rates in the Teachers Modern Award are too low, and do not reflect the proper value of any teacher, including primary school teachers.

The hearings are expected to finish in August, with a decision at the end of the year or early next year.

In my new book Winning for Women: A Personal Story, I’ve written about reforms for women in Australia since the 1960s, including equal pay.

When I joined The Age as a young journalist, my union was proud of the fact that it had introduced equal pay for men and women, in its first federal award, back in 1917. Men and women got the same pay if they were on the same grade. I noticed, however, that women were rarely on the higher grades.

When I became Education Reporter, writing news and feature articles, I was on a D-grade, the lowest, and although I later went up to a C grade, I was doing the work of a much higher grade. Pay grades were at the discretion of the editor.

In 1984, I joined the ACTU as co-ordinator of a new women’s employment program, which included strategies for equal pay. Using the 1972 decision of ‘equal pay for equal value’, we won a major equal pay case for nurses in 1987, during which Victorian nurses went on strike for 50 days.

We went on to win a case for outworkers in the clothing industry, and later I was the advocate in an equal pay case for childcare workers and another for clerical and administrative workers.

In 1993 the Keating government changed the industrial relations legislation to ‘equal remuneration for work of equal value’. This was a big advance, because remuneration included payments above the award. It’s been difficult to interpret the legislation however, and only one case has been successful, the Social and Community Services (SACS) case of 2012.

Sally McManus

That was co-ordinated by Sally McManus, then with the Australian Services Union. Non-government community service employees, such as social workers and welfare workers, were compared with those in government service, and won substantial pay increases. A crucial element of the case was the support of the Gillard Government, which pledged nearly $3 billion towards the pay increases.

In 2013 United Voice and the Australian Education Union (AEU) began a case for childcare workers (now called early childhood educators). The claim for an equal remuneration order ran for five years, cost United Voice a million dollars, and failed. The Commission suggested, however, that the union could run a work-value case instead.

During the case, childcare workers held one-day strikes on several occasions, to draw attention to their cause, but failed to get the support of the federal government. United Voice is now closely watching the case for preschool teachers, who work in long day care beside childcare workers.

If the IEUA case is successful, it’s likely that others will follow, especially in low-paid, female-dominated occupations. If it’s not, unions will have to wait for a Labor Government to re-introduce policies to close the gender pay gap.

Iola Mathews
Iola Mathews

Iola Mathews’ latest book is Winning for Women: A Personal Story (Monash University Publishing). She is a co-founder of the Women’s Electoral Lobby, a former journalist at The Age, and a former Industrial Advocate with the ACTU.