The Employment Court has also accused female-dominated industries, such as aged care, of perpetuating a systemic bias against women by undervaluing work that has traditionally been done by women.
In its decision released late last week, the court found employers in female-dominated industries can no longer argue that because their few male workers are also poorly paid, their women workers are not discriminated against based on their sex.
Instead, it accepted the unions’ interpretation of the law, which would require employers to show women are not paid less than men in other industries with comparable skills.
Employment experts say the decision could affect tens of thousand of female workers, particularly those working in the health and education.
The ruling is part of a test case between Petone aged-care worker Kristine Bartlett, supported by the Service and Food Workers Union, and her employer TerraNova Homes & Care.
Bartlett has worked in aged care for decades but is paid just $14.46 an hour, only slightly above the minimum wage.
TerraNova has said an unfavourable ruling could destroy the aged-care industry. It argued in court that because its four male workers were paid similarly low rates, it did not discriminate against women.
However, the court found industries that had traditionally been “women’s work” could not rely on their few male workers to support the argument that women were not discriminated against.
While its interpretation might be burdensome for employers it needed to measured against the cost of continued discrimination.
“History is redolent with examples of strongly voiced concerns about the implementation of anti-discrimination initiatives on the basis they will spell financial and social ruin but which have been proved to be misplaced or have been acceptable as the short-term price for the longer-term social good.”
The particular matter of whether Bartlett has faced discrimination because of her sex is yet to be heard.
This is a welcome ruling by the Employment Court. For years workers in service industries like aged care who are predominantly women have endured low wages. TerraNova’s response that the ruling “could destroy the ages care industry” is entirely predictable. The sky will not fall on their heads if female workers are given greater financial recognition for the excellent work they do. The same outcry came from the food services industry i.e. restaurant owners when they were forced to pay staff extra for working on public holidays. After several years of this impossible burden there still seems to be no shortage of restaurants to choose from.