Australian women shrink the pay gap
Equal pay for equal work has eluded generations of American women. But Australia - a country where men still refer to the ladies as "sheilas" and male bonding in pubs is often seen as a national right - has nearly closed the gender pay gap.Skip to next paragraph
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In a comparison of gender-pay ratios among developed nations from previous years, Australia ranks an impressive second. Women here make 91 cents to a man's dollar - far ahead of US women at 79 cents.
The reason lies partly with the high number of Australians whose wages are determined by collective bargaining or set by the government.
But major changes to Australia's labor laws go into effect next Monday which could endanger some of the strides made by working women over recent decades, say rights activists and labor leaders here.
"This whole historical system that's been in place for over 100 years is about to be wiped out," says Annie Owens, a branch secretary of the Liquor, Hospitality, and Miscellaneous Workers Union in Sydney. "Women are going to be the big losers because of where they are located in the economy. Low-paid people are simply going to fall behind."
Under the current system, government panels set industry-specific wages and benefits for many workers. This baseline pay is generally high in comparison to minimum wages in other developed nations. Some workers then strike better deals through unions with their employers, or negotiate their own individual contracts.
Labor experts contend that the pay gap between men and women has narrowed under this system for a couple of reasons. It has kept many women from having to negotiate their own salaries (research shows women tend not to bargain as hard as men). Feminists have also been able to mount legal challenges against the traditional undervaluing of predominantly female professions like nursing and teaching.
This month, in one of the largest pay-equity cases in Australia, the government raised the pay of some 15,000 childcare workers. Unions successfully argued that the job was underpaid in comparison to more male-centric jobs, as well as teaching, which draws on similar skill sets.
For Bronwyn Keane, who works at a day care in a Sydney suburb, the ruling will put an extra $166 a week in her purse. It sets aside some time at work for paperwork once done at home, and grants her overtime pay.
"It may allow us to have a family, have a bit of the Australian dream, and own our own home - it would be lovely," she says.
The case brings important social affirmation as well. "I said to some parents yesterday, 'We've got this pay raise - sorry.' We've got to stop doing that and recognize the importance of what we do," Ms. Keane says to her co-workers on a lunch break. "It's time for us to get a little back."
However, this pay-equity case may be one of the last of its kind, cautions Ms. Owens.
Under the new changes to the labor laws, the state board that decided the case will be scrapped, and its federal counterpart will have many of its powers placed into a new entity called the Fair Pay Commission. The FPC is expected to be more focused on Australia's international competitiveness and on expanding employment - suggesting it will hold a tougher line on wage increases.