Community sector a win for all

Tony Davies is the CEO of the Northern Rivers Social Development Council

Last week the industrial umpire, Fair Work Australia, handed down its long awaited decision in the Community Sector Equal Remuneration Case. The decision grants significant pay rises to 150,000 workers around Australia who provide vital community services in the areas of disability, aged care, youth, homelessness, family and mental health services. Pay increases will be phased in over eight years starting in December of this year.

The Community Sector workforce is predominantly female. Workers in these not-for-profit community services have long been paid less than their equivalents in the government sectors for doing what is essentially the same work. Fair Work Australia found that gender had been an important factor in creating the pay gap between the community sector and their workforce counterparts in the government sector. The decision has been described as the most important decision since the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission enshrined the principle of "equal work for equal pay" in 1972 and reinforces the point that discrimination on the basis of gender is unacceptable.

The principle behind the decision is important - workers who provide vital support to our community are entitled to be paid properly for what they do. Hopefully, it will finally consign to the dustbin the idea that 'caring' work is 'women's work' and somehow less valuable than 'real work'. As well as upholding the rights of and valuing women, the decision will also be welcomed by the many men in our sector who will also benefit from the pay rises.

Community sector work is rewarding and enriching but it is also hard, emotionally draining and complex and it requires extraordinary skill and dedication. Hopefully, the decision will help avert a looming workforce crisis for community services; without better pay and conditions we would slowly lose our community sector workforce.

Over the past two decades the not-for-profit workforce has become recognised as a skilled body of professionals. Workforce research undertaken by the Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC) in 2009 indicted that the sector is highly qualified, with over 60 percent of workers holding a university degree. Many workers have had to make hard choices about whether to remain in a sector that does so much good, or go where they can earn enough money to have a quality of life. Worryingly, the 2009 survey indicated that nearly one in three workers were looking for another job and that nearly 60 percent planned to leave the sector within five years.

The Fair Work Australia decision is an important one and significant for the Northern Rivers region because here, health and community services are the second largest employer in the region and the fastest growing sector of our economy. Our region has greater numbers of older people, people with a disability and homeless people than other parts of the country. Better pay will help not-for-profit community services to attract and keep good workers in the face of competition from government and other industries and ensure that these vital services remain accessible to the most needy in our community.

Much of the work of the sector is preventative; helping people to get their lives on track as quickly as possible and is also very cost effective. For example, it is better and cheaper to help a young person who is in difficulty to stay engaged with education, work, and family than to let them fall through the gaps and end up as in the statistics for long term unemployed.

Concern has also been expressed about who 'will pay for the increases?' 'Can we afford them?' and 'will it result in staffing cuts or cuts to services?' The answer largely depends on government. Funding for community services is provided both the State and Federal governments. At the time of writing, the Federal government has unequivocally committed to fully funding its share of the increase, while the NSW government has committed to funding its 'fair share' of the outcome of the case. We can expect a fair bit of haggling in the next few months over exactly what each government's share is and some interesting discussions about what it means to fund a 'fair share' of the outcome, but hopefully all funders will come to the party.

The long timeframe, with the increases phasing in over eight years is a disappointing to workers who have waited years for this case to conclude. But it will make it hard to argue that the pay increase is unaffordable. On a year by year basis, the increases will be modest and easily affordable to government.

The decision is a win for all, our community, clients, workers and women.

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