The removal of award rate discrimination

Updated time

Last updated

05 September 2016
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There had always been dissatisfaction with the lack of equal pay for women and Indigenous workers. The 1960s and 1970s equal pay campaigns were to end the unequal pay that had been introduced after the Harvester Decision of 1907.

Women workers

Women received the male minimum wage if they worked in jobs in competition with men, such as a fruit picker or blacksmith. This principle established in the 1912 Fruit Pickers Case effectively sought to protect what was regarded as the conventional breadwinners for an entire family.

Women received a lower minimum wage of 54 per cent of the male wage if they worked in unskilled jobs mainly performed by women (such as fruit packer or milliner). They were to be paid a wage deemed sufficient to cover ‘the normal needs of a single woman supporting herself by her own exertions’. After World War II this became 75 per cent of the male basic wage.

Finally in the National Wage and Equal Pay Cases of 1972, the Commission decided that both men and women should receive the same award wage. They would be set on ‘work value’ grounds, that is, on the basis of the value of the work. This decision also formally brought to an end the idea of a ‘family wage’, as employees were paid as individuals not as presumed breadwinners for a family, and their ‘needs’ calculated on that basis.

1969: Equal Pay rally at the Trades Hall, Carlton, Victoria

Young workers

Conditions in the early Australian factories were not always what we today would regard as desirable or safe. A Victorian royal commission reported in 1883:

“The apprenticeship system was frequently used to obtain labour without remuneration, apprentices being dismissed upon asking for payment at the end of their time.”

In the early part of the century the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration sometimes established special lower rates for young people, sometimes refused to establish lower junior rates in order to protect the employment of adult workers, and sometimes tried to insist on training of young people through apprenticeships. In the Harvester Case, the Court established three minimum wages:

  • The ordinary adult minimum wage
  • Special lower apprenticeship rates, which might be accompanied by award clauses requiring training, for the first year it was 8 shillings per week and for the fifth year 24 shillings per week
  • Special lower junior rates paid to young people with no training requirements, for boys under 15 years it was 2 shillings per day and for boys aged 20 or older it was 6 shillings per day

Special female apprenticeship provisions were included in awards where the work was female work.

1911–1915: Children picking hops in Tasmania

Indigenous workers

Indigenous people did not always have full rights until 1967, and were often treated as persons under control of the state. Permits were sometimes required to employ indigenous people.

Male indigenous workers did not receive ordinary award rates, but were paid under special government regulations.

In the Cattle Industry Case 1966 (the Aboriginal Stockmen's Case), the Commission decided to remove the exemption of Aboriginal employees from an award. This led to the gradual removal of all such exemptions from federal awards. The result was that eventually one award rate applied to all employees, whether Aboriginal or not. 

The ‘slow worker permit’ clauses in awards were intended by the Commission to be used to deal with the claims by pastoralists of lower worker productivity, allowing lesser wages to be paid on a single employee basis, but were apparently not widely used.  

1971: Stockmen in their Kitchen at Killarney Station