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Rapid gains under Queenland gender equity laws


Queensland Council of Unions secretary Jacqueline King says Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke is "receptive" to calls for new gender equity laws replicating the State's legislation that has "made more of a difference" in its first year than in the previous two decades under the Queensland IRC's equal remuneration principle.

Reflecting at the recent ALERA conference in Hobart on her involvement in the most recent Queensland public sector bargaining round, King said gender equity provisions inserted into the IR Act in November last year (see Related Article) have already resulted in some major improvements for public sector employees such as nurses and teachers' aides.

New good faith bargaining provisions at s173(3) of the IR Act require parties to "obtain, and disclose as soon as practicable after the start of negotiations, information relevant to the gender pay gap under the proposed instrument", including the distribution of employees by gender, details of the gender pay gap, any major factors contributing to it, and the projected effect of the proposed instrument.

The parties must also provide other information relevant to the gender pay gap that is reasonably requested by another party to the negotiations.

Under s201, the IRC now must be satisfied before it approves multi-employer agreements, project agreements or other bargaining instruments that they include information about how "equal remuneration for work of equal or comparable value" is being or will be implemented.

According to s245, the purpose of an equal remuneration chapter within the legislation includes requiring the IRC to ensure when making modern awards that "equal remuneration for work of equal or comparable value is provided for" and that it is informed about the steps taken by the parties to provide for this when it comes to certifying or making bargaining instruments.

Gender equity no longer "just an afterthought"

King told the conference that in addition to a "central wages policy for right across the public sector, where we agreed to a 4%, 4% and 3.5% basic wage framework plus a cost of living adjustment", those involved in the latest round of Queensland's public sector bargaining had "capacity to then look at agency level initiatives, so things like classification structures and the like, or flexibility or different issues that agencies were trying to grapple with".

She said pay equity and the gender pay gap has been "a big issue that we talked about in Queensland and I think this is also really fundamental to our bargaining system".

"So, in terms of the public sector, we were able to do things like level-up penalty rates for nurses and midwives who were the only occupation in the sector who were getting time and a half on Sundays," she said.

"Tidying up and making more secure jobs for teacher aides was [also] really important because that's actually a gender pay gap issue," she said, adding that it is "not just [about] looking at higher rates, but actually conditions and the structures that underpin this stuff".

"We also then looked at our superannuation and we fixed a major inequity again – which was again driven by the QNMU – where shiftworkers, unless you had rolled-up rates pay, did not get access to superannuation to be paid on their shift work".

Observing that in comparison to the female-dominated nursing field "a lot of the male-dominated occupations in the public sector. . . got it paid on their rolled-up rates of pay", she said "we got that fixed".

King said that expanding the scope of Queensland's good faith bargaining orders to include information about the gender pay gap and requiring parties to now outline in their agreement, "not just in an affidavit", how they have or will be meeting their pay equity obligations has "really helped to guide the whole debate and the discussions – and I think they've been pretty productive discussions between the unions and government on this issue".

This means it is "not just an afterthought, or 'we're gonna fill out an affidavit when we get to the Commission and we want to actually get it approved'" and "in my mind, that also means that it's an enforceable obligation", she said.

"So all these things have meant that workers' wages and in particular women's wages in Queensland have improved [and] at the same time our economy hasn't ground to a halt," King said, adding "I know it's the public sector, but it is pretty big in Queensland".

QCU pushing Burke to adopt similar laws

King meanwhile told Workplace Express that the QCU has "actually had discussions with Minister Burke. . . and we've spoken to the ACTU" about the peak group's view that it "should actually be something that should be included in the Fair Work Act".

So far, from Burke, she says they have "had an open reception to the concept but not a commitment".

Given most pay inequity "obviously occurs [where the] the largest bulk of Australian workers is, out there in the private sector", she says "these are benefits that can be flowed on in other state jurisdictions as well as the Fair Work jurisdiction".

King says that after the IRC put its equal remuneration principles in place in 2002, "we had three or four key test cases that occurred but they each individually took a couple of years to achieve the outcomes" and since the handover of private sector workers to the federal jurisdiction, there "hasn't been any sort of further movement".

"So when we introduced the legislation last year. . . we were kind of really focused on 'what can we actually do as part of bargaining so that we actually have a little bit more control over what's happening'" and on getting bargaining parties "to actually focus on equal remuneration and pay equity issues right up front".

While it is "early days", she says "across a range of sectors – so nurses and midwives, teaching and teacher aides in particular", there have been "some quite significant changes that were achieved. . . and probably more things within a space of 12 months than literally the previous 20 years from when the wage principle was first introduced".

King adds that the new gender equity provisions save parties "millions of dollars" they would otherwise incur "going into conflicting full bench test cases where everyone lawyers-up and everyone contracts out to barristers for cases that. . . take two or three years".

"Instead of doing that in a combative style, we think this is a way to get parties to focus on their common interest through bargaining."

"Glaringly obvious nurses and midwives were worse off": Semple

QNMU industrial officer Vonnie Semple – part of what King called a "tag team", working with her to get the legislation changed – told Workplace Express that even though the IRC certified the latest nurses and midwives public sector agreement just a month after the new gender equity provisions came into effect, they were able to achieve significant improvements.

This includes one measure that has resulted in a large proportion of nurses and midwives increasing their weekly pay by between $100 and $109 each week through a boost to Sunday penalties.

Semple says nurses and midwives – both overwhelmingly female-dominated roles – had been the only occupations in the state public sector that were not paid double time for ordinary time on Sundays, and remained on time and three quarters.

"So we got Queensland Health to provide that gender pay equity information, which included information on some comparable, male-dominated occupations," she says.

"We looked at ambulance officers, paramedics, firefighters, and corrections officers [who are] broadly comparable because they are shiftworkers in the state public sector," Semple continues, adding that they also compared nurses with dental officers in allied health, who have their own award and agreement because, while they are "not necessarily male dominated, they work alongside our members in a lot of settings".

Based on a comparison of penalties and other entitlements in those awards and agreements, she says it became "glaringly obvious that nurses and midwives were worse off than the others in a few respects".

Semple says some of the "biggest ones" involved the Sunday penalty rates, along with inferior overtime payments for shiftworkers (double time for all overtime versus time and a half for the first three hours and double time thereafter), and recall arrangements, given nurses and midwives are paid from when they arrive at work when recalled whereas others are paid from and they leave home to when they get home.

They also found men were "well over-represented at the highest levels of the classification structure", which comprise about 30% of males even though they account for about 11% of the workforce.

By tackling the issues "through the gender pay equity lens", Semple says that in addition to double time on Sunday, the agreement also contains clear gender equity commitments (see clause 40) to look at the other issues raised, examine whether there is pay inequity between those covered by this agreement and others in the Queensland public sector, and a recognition that if this is the case, they will make recommendations for how they might be remedied.

The clause also states that the parties "agree that female nurses and midwives should be represented at senior levels in Queensland Health proportionate to the number of females in the workforce" and says a "dedicated project officer will be appointed for a period of two years to conduct a comprehensive review" into the potential gender pay gap.

"We would like to get something similar in the federal [Fair Work] Act, in the sense that equal remuneration must be addressed in the bargaining process and. . . must contain information about how the employer has implemented, will implement or is implementing it," Semple says.

"Because otherwise you've got to address it through a work value or gender equity case which is a huge undertaking."

Semple believes many large organisations "would find that the higher [classification] levels are male-dominated".

"Having a clause in the federal Act that requires them to actually address that in their agreements would be very helpful in moving towards closing the gender pay gap."