SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA — 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.
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.
The legislation, known as WorkChoices, also encourages more individual bargaining for wages, moving Australia more in line with British and American practices.
"This is about having an open, freer market with protections," says Peter Lindsay, a member of Parliament from the conservative Liberal Party. "This will give us productivity gains, and it is only through productivity gains that you can increase pay."
The Business Council of Australia, which was a key backer of the legislation, argues that while national unemployment stands at a low 5 percent, the problem of underemployment persists. The new system, the Council argues, will make it easier to offer more flexible arrangements to these workers, many of whom are women.
Indeed, less than a third of full-time workers are female, largely due to family responsibilities. Some 70 percent of Australian mothers work outside the home, but mostly part time. And only 41 percent of women over the age of 55 work, often because many are shouldering the care of an elderly parent, according to Pru Goward with the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in Sydney. This ultimately impacts women's earnings. The 2000 figure of 91 cents to a man's dollar only applies to non-managerial, full-time workers, excluding overtime pay. Once all earnings and part-time labor is included, the current ratio falls to 66 cents to the dollar, Ms. Goward says.
"The reason [women] don't negotiate as well on wage raises is because what we do are trade-offs - we are much better at flexible arrangements, negotiating annual leave.... We're much more determined to get time with our kids," says Goward.
Simply shifting to part-time work doesn't always solve the time crunch for mothers.
Jennifer Brennan, a mother of two in Sydney, pared back her job as a human resources manager to three days a week after the birth of her first daughter. But the arrangement soon fell apart. "The fact that I was trying to do five days of work in three, it really didn't work," she says, noting that job sharing would be the obvious solution. "[Employers] don't like jobs share. It costs them more as well."
As a government adviser, Goward advocates better family-leave policies and flextime arrangements. She only half agrees with proponents of the new labor laws who say employers will now be able to meet individual scheduling needs. Women in the skilled workforce will benefit she says, but in the "unskilled workforce ... life for these women might get a bit tougher."
In 2000, women in Portugal earned an average of 92 cents for every dollar paid to a man in a full-time job. Australia tied for 2nd at 91 cents. In a survey of 19 industrialized countries, the US ranked 18, paying just 79 cents on the dollar.
Portugal: 92 cents
Australia: 91 cents
Belgium: 91 cents
Denmark: 89 cents
Spain: 88 cents
France: 87 cents
US: 79 cents
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1998-2000 data from Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)