International Women’s Day: Australia – The fight for equal pay continues!

In the 1920s women workers were only paid about half of what male workers earned.

 In some workplaces they even less: between 30- 40 % of men’s wages. It was through organising women in unions that the struggle for equal pay rights was won. Today a similar struggle for equal pay is going on with young workers who often receive between 40% and 60 % of adult rates. This is helping employers to make massive amounts of profits.

The first Women’s Day was celebrated in the United States, arising out of struggles of women workers in the second half of the 19th Century. It evolved into an international event as women in industrially developing countries began organising to fight against the appalling wages and conditions faced by female workers in industries such as manufacturing, textiles and domestic services.

On 8 March 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter working hours, better pay, voting rights and an end to child labour. They adopted the slogan "Bread and Roses", with bread symbolising economic security and roses a better quality of life.

After a massive strike of garment workers in 1909, it was proposed at a conference of the Socialist International in 1910 that Women’s Day become an international event. This proposal was premised on the understanding that the exploitation of workers can only be tackled through international solidarity.

The Struggle for Equal Pay

In Australia union leader Muriel Heagney realised the importance of women fighting for equal pay and led the Council of Action for Equal Pay (CAEP).  The CAEP organised trade unions and women’s organisations. It was the first conscious movement for equal pay in Australia. Their campaign of ‘the rate for the job’ successfully achieved the first benchmark in 1942 – when the female rate of pay was set at 75% of the male rate in the Commonwealth Basic Wage Case.

This was followed by further struggles for equality in the workplace, which led to the ‘Equal pay for equal work’ act of 1972, the right to maternity leave in 1979 and finally the Sex Discrimination Act, 1984 making it illegal to discriminate against women on the basis of sex, marital status and pregnancy.

The existence of ‘youth wages’, just like the meagre half pay for women in the 1920s, allows employers today to make massive profits. Fast food and the retail trade rely on young people. No other industries have workforces so dominated by young workers. By hiring a large number of inexpensive workers and sending them home when things are slow, these outlets are able to keep their labour costs low. Paying youth wages and employing most of their staff on a casual basis is the key to their massive profit margins.

Women today still fighting for equal pay

Despite legislation, women today still earn considerably less than men. For instance women in retail and hospitality (hotels and catering) have been hit hardest by prime minister Howard’s new work laws.  Real wages have fallen dramatically since the new legislation. The impact was particularly harsh for women, whose real ordinary-time earnings fell by 2 per cent in the first six months. In retail and hospitality women represent 60 per cent of the work-force.

Between 2000 and 2004, the ordinary-time earnings of full-time female workers were about 85 per cent of the male average. They are now 83.6 per cent – the lowest proportion since late 1998. Men who work full-time receive about $9,500 a year more on average than full-time women workers.

Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) hit women and young people hardest

Many young people and women are being forced onto AWAs under Howard’s new work laws. Most AWAs cut entitlements, especially penalty rates, overtime payments and allowances. National figures showed the number of Australian Workplace Agreements in retail and hospitality has surged in the past year.

UNITE – the union for low-paid young workers – is campaigning to organise the sectors of fast food and retail. We stand against the introduction of wage cutting AWAs. We are also one of the only organisations actively campaigning against youth wages, casualisation and low pay.

UNITE celebrates the struggles of women workers, particularly in the fight for equal pay. Yet the struggle for equal pay must continue. Women need pay equity in the industries in which they work. We also need a broader campaign to combat youth rates which allow for the discrimination and super-exploitation of young workers. Women and youth need to get organised in their workplaces and fight discrimination.


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