At last! Equal pay or is it just another down payment in a continuing fight? I thoroughly enjoyed watching Julia Gillard living up to the image of the dream feminist PM who promotes gender fairness. She has committed her government to supporting an average 20% pay rise for very undervalued work. It was good seeing the most senior woman in Australian politics promoting her Fair Work Act’s capacity to deliver equal pay for work of equal value.

While equal pay for the same jobs has been around since the seventies, the actual hourly wage gap between men and women has barely moved since the early eighties. The problem needs involvement from the top to remedy the entrenched gender unfairness factors that contribute to this gap.

Part of the problem is the types of jobs that mostly women do. These jobs often focus on people-caring tasks that mirror much traditionally done, unpaid and undervalued in the home and community. Partly this view was just straight s-xism because they were done by women and therefore obviously not as valuable as what may be seen as equivalent male-dominated jobs. Partly it was also the failure to understand that many of these tasks required learnt skills, not just the presumed bundle of attributes that are supposed to come with the XX chromosomes.

The interesting contradiction to last of the above assumptions is that many of those women, working in the industries covered by the new pay decision, require post-school qualifications including at tertiary levels. Many workers in community services areas are paid less than $50,000 a year despite having high credentials and experience. These workers need high levels of skills to improve the well-being of many of our most vulnerable society members such as victims of domestic violence and people with disabilities.

And that has been the other part of the problem. Most of these services are small and community based, though some larger charities are also involved. The nature of the work and clients makes it very hard for workers to take any forms of industrial action to make clear their desires for decent pay. The industry, by its nature, tends to draw on those who have high social concerns and are prepared to put clients and their needs in the job above financial need.

The result has been continued low pay. This results in an ageing workforce and a high turnover among younger workers who need to earn more to set themselves up and fund family needs. The Australian Services Union took the case under the new Fair Work provisions to gain recognition for the discrimination against the primarily female workforce. While many in the community sector, including the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) have been very supportive, there have been some agencies including some big ones who are not so keen. The whole sector is also concerned about how to pay the higher wages as a large percentage of their income comes from government funding at state and federal levels.

Fair Work Australia has already acknowledged the gender gap in the industry pay rates. It brought down that part of its judgment earlier this year and referred questions on the level of pay rises to the interested parties. These were asked to negotiate and submit their views on the appropriate outcomes and their time frame possibilities. The current news items relate to the submission made by the federal government and unions. This is a set of agreements on the funding and staging of the pay rises. Other submissions will come from the state and territory government, employers and other interested parties.

The battle is therefore not over until Fair Work Australia announces its decision on the rates, etc, presumably later this month. The Gillard government deal is very important and likely to influence the decision. However, this level of government only covers the subsidies for between a third and half the agencies involved, so commitments by the states, etc, are also crucial. So far, the signs from the biggest two are not very good. NSW seems to be suggesting that the feds add to their $2 billion so they can fund some of the states’ rises as well!

So, before the cheering becomes too loud, women need to recognise that there is still a long way to go. There will be other employers, particularly in female-dominated private sector areas such as child care, retail and aged care, who will be anxious about the flow on to their areas. They are indicating that they are likely to oppose the rise.

Even if a rise is granted, it will be phased in over six years and not apparently starting until December next year so it does not overload the deficit. While on the surface, this seems reasonable, the slowness again exploits the goodwill of a sector of powerless workers.

Who else other than a group of caring women would wait so long for comparative wage justice?