Feminist economics posts

Feminist economic critiques and Australia’s equal remuneration hearing

Do feminist economists have a key competitive advantage in the area of contributing to understanding the low wages associated with care work?

If so, perhaps it lies in their understandings about the limitations of mainstream economics and understandings of different approaches to theory and research. An example of this capacity occurred in 2010–2012 in Australia when a national tribunal, Fair Work Australia,* heard a case about the low wages paid to social and community care workers. The hearing was brought before the tribunal by unions who argued that the work done by Social and Community Sector (SACS) workers was under paid, in part, because the work is performed by a highly feminized workforce. The case represented a major precedent in the tribunal’s interpretation of 2009 legislation, which gave it authority to ensure that “there will be equal remuneration for work of equal or comparable value.”

In this case, the evidence brought before the tribunal included several academic analyses of the links between gender, care, and low wages. One analysis was undertaken by three Australian members of IAFFE, Siobhan Austen, Therese Jefferson and Alison Preston.  This analysis provided an opportunity to synthesize insights from well-established feminist critiques of economic theory and contribute them to an important public discourse. The analysis considered the assumptions and limitations of mainstream analysis of wage differences between men and women. This included the extent to which such analysis considers the possibility of discrimination and unobserved variables, but excludes the possibility of systematic under valuation of specific types of work.  The analysis also considered the way in which the institutions and social norms inform wages and employment conditions in various sectors of the labor market. In total, the academic analyses were a small part of the total evidence brought before the tribunal. Despite this, the opportunity to carefully explain standard economic modelling and assumptions to a literate, informed audience of non-economists provided an important lesson in the potential power of contributing insights from feminist economic critiques to key policy and decision-making forums.

In its decision, the tribunal concluded: “for employees in the SACS industry there is not equal remuneration for men and women workers for work of equal or comparable value by comparison with workers in state and local government employment. We consider gender has been important in creating the gap between pay in the SACS industry and pay in comparable state and local government employment.” As a result of this finding, wage increases of 19 to 41 percent  (depending on job level) are being implemented progressively through wage adjustments between 2012 and 2020.

Further information is available by clicking here.


* Fair Work Australia is now known as the Fair Work Commission.

Edited November 12, 2013 to fix link in last sentence.

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