Diary of a Labour Man: 1917 - 1945

Full text Prime Minister


In Parliament.- On 29th September, 1942, Air. Curtin introduced the Women's Employment Bill. Mr. Curtin said -

"The Government was faced with the urgent problem of telling women what their rates of pay, hours of work, and conditions of labour would be before it drew them into avocations in which they had never before engaged, and in which they were required temporarily to replace men. The men would have continued in these callings except for the fact that they were needed for the fighting services or for other essential war work. The men faced with this temporary intrusion of women were as much interested in the rates of pay and conditions of work as were the women themselves. If delays such as had marked the hearing of evidence and the making of awards by the Arbitration Court after evidence had been taken had been allowed to occur in connexion with the fixing of rates of pay and the conditions of work of the women required to replace the men called up for war service or transferred to other more essential occupations, the women would have been at work perhaps a month before they would have known what their pay would be.

“The Arbitration Court was already seriously congested when the need arose for the prompt determination of those questions. One judge of the court is performing very responsible duties on the coal tribunal, and another is doing similar work on the stevedoring commission. The appointment of extra judges to the Arbitration Court would not have solved the problem for several reasons. In the Arbitration Court, cases are taken in rotation or according to their importance. A union which goes on strike can set the machinery of the court in motion much more promptly than can a union which prefers to keep its members at work. It is undoubtedly a fact that throughout its history the court has moved more promptly in respect of industries which have been the subject of an actual or a threatened stoppage of work.

"It was for this reason, among others, that the Government established the Women's Employment Board. The board was designed to do quickly the special work that had to be done. There was an overwhelming necessity for quick action, and the board has carried out the duty placed upon it. It has already heard 85 cases, in respect of which 50 decisions have been made. The other 35 cases are awaiting awards. Fifty cases are still listed for hearing. A total of 7,685 women was affected by the decisions of the board. Almost half of them were employees of Commonwealth or State governments, or employees of State instrumentalities. Claims heard, but in respect of which decisions have not been given, affect 2,603 women, of whom 2,022 are employees of the Commonwealth or State governments. It will be seen that 5,602 of the women involved in those cases are being paid out of war appropriations. In other words, the women are, in fact, as well as technically, government employees, or employees of public instrumentalities the funds for which are provided by the Government.

“Some Ms.P. appear to be under the impression that private enterprise has been greatly affected by the work of the Women's Employment Board. That is not the case. The Commonwealth and State Governments are by far the largest employers of the women affected or likely to be affected by decisions of the board. At least 10,288 women were covered by claims made to the board. Of these, 55 per cent., or 5,602 women, were employees of the Commonwealth or State Governments. The largest claim affected 2,500 women employed by the Department of Munitions in ammunition and explosive factories.

“Where women are as efficient as men the male rates of pay apply. But who is to assess the efficiency? The difference between Opposition Ms.P. and Government Ms.P. is that we say that women who are as efficient as men are entitled to the economic status of men. But who is to make the assessment? The Government appointed the Women's Employment Board for the purpose. In 49 cases dealt with, the time between lodgment of claim and conclusion of hearing was under one month in thirteen claims, one month and under two months in thirteen claims, two months and under three in 22 claims, three months and under four month in one claim. The time between conclusion of hearing and date of decision was under one month in 40 claims and one month and under two months in nine claims. The average number of days between conclusion of hearing and date of decision was eleven days. On seven claims the board gave its decision as soon as the case concluded.

“When the board commenced its hearings, the cases took much longer to decide than has been the case recently. Ninety-five days elapsed between the tune the first claim was filed and the decision given, whereas only nine days elapsed between the filing of the claim and the giving of the decision in the last case. The average time occupied in hearing each case was one and one-third days. That is an illustration of expedition. It is sufficient to indicate that not only was there urgent need for the establishment of such a board but also that it is possible for such a board to make decisions more speedily than they can be made by the Arbitration Court. The Government says that, instead of every industrial matter having to go to the Arbitration Court, a separate instrumentality would in this instance be conducive to quicker and better results.

"What has the Women's Employment Board done? It has fixed assessments ranging from 66 per cent. to 100 per cent. of the male rate. The latter rate has been fixed in thirteen cases, nine of which were by agreement between the parties. In the other cases, various percentages were fixed as the result of an inquiry to determine the relative efficiency of the women to the efficiency of the average male. That the Women's Employment Board has made its decisions more speedily than they could have been made by the Arbitration Court, is one of the reasons for the degree of female employment to which we have attained, on the basis of a reasonable payment for it. In fact, this has been possible only because the procedure of the board has been completely informal and it has been free to specialize on the single task of adjusting the conditions governing the employment of women.

"Experience has shown that the task has been such as to strain to the full the resources of the board. As I have already announced, the Government decided on the recommendation of the departmental committee on man-power to establish subsidiary tribunals to the Women's Employment Board in order that applications may be heard simultaneously in all States. The departmental committee stated, and the Government agrees, that a single tribunal would not be capable of dealing with the greatly expanded volume of applications that will arise out of the transfer of women to industry, in the numbers I have already indicated, as expeditiously as the situation demands.

"There has been some confusion as to the nature of the board's functions. In all States, restrictions have been imposed in respect of the employment of women. These have been designed partly to protect the position of men, and partly to protect the health and welfare of women employees. Under the pressure of war conditions and the need to place women in industry, it is necessary to relax certain of these restrictions. This could not be done by setting aside the standard for women's labour already built up. What is necessary is a careful examination of each individual case, and a decision in the light of all the circumstances. Accordingly, the function of the Women's Employment Board is to examine each individual case to decide the degree to which any of the existing restrictions shall be set aside and to determine the conditions under which women shall be employed in each particular industry. The board is not an `equal pay' board; but it is equally not a `cheap labour' board. Its task has been -and under the provisions of this bill it will continue to be - to measure the relative efficiency and productivity of female labour, and to determine what shall be the appropriate rates of pay and conditions of employment for women workers whose services are required in order to release men for the fighting services.

"The Government, accordingly, regard., the board as an essential part of the administrative organization for total war in Australia. We are dealing with a special problem that has arisen as the result of circumstances brought about by the war. These women will be doing work that is normally done by men, for which rates of pay have already been fixed by the Arbitration Court. The special problem is to determine what rate of pay shall be applicable to women and what changes of the conditions of labour are necessitated by the employment of women. If this problem is to be handled at all, it must be handled expeditiously. The general level of wages is not in question; that is determined by the Arbitration Court. What is required is an adjustment of women's wages on the basis of the capacity of women to undertake work that is normally done by men. In all these avocations, the Arbitration Court has fixed the minimum rate of pay, and its determinations have been made on the presumption that men would do the work. The Government has asked that women shall be employed temporarily, in the hope that the war will not last for ever. It says that determination by a tribunal that is accustomed or at least specially qualified, to make the assessment of the relative rate of efficiency of a woman - or of two women, as the case may be -to the rate fixed by the court for the male worker in the industry concerned, is the most appropriate means for resolving the problem. Its contention is that, if the capacity of women be equal to that of men, they should he paid as much as men; and if it be less, they should be paid proportionately less than men. There has also to be considered the degree to which the working conditions should be modified in respect of women. These matters can best be determined by a special tribunal. The volume of work is so great, and the need for urgent action so pressing, that a special tribunal is required. Moreover, the Commonwealth Government is the principal employer of women who are brought into industry, and is therefore entitled to special representation on any tribunal that deals with the problem.

"Finally, there is the assurance that has reasonably to be given to men who are displaced, that their wage standards will not be lowered. The determination of women's wages by a special tribunal will be solely concerned with estimating the relative capacity of men and women in work that is normally done by men, but is being performed by women during the war. The Women's Employment Board does not fix rates of pay; these are fixed by the Arbitration Court, and that function is not being taken from it. Nor is it being deprived of the function of fixing basic wages and basic hours. The Women's Employment Board merely takes into account the fact that women are being used as a substitute for men in industries previously carried on by males; and without any examination as to whether the male rate is fair or unfair, it says that the efficiency of women as a replacement force is of a given percentage - 20 per cent., 30 per cent., 60 per cent., 80 per cent., or 100 per cent.

“The other question which had to be decided was whether the prohibition in State legislation against the employment of women shall be set aside under the National Security Act. We have to ensure that men who are displaced do not have their economic standards eaten into by the incursion of women as a permanent economic feature. We must also keep faith with the women of this country, and ensure that if they are capable of doing as much war work as men, they shall be paid as if they were men. I believe that the Government's method of approaching this problem will safeguard the rights of both men and women, which was the Government's purpose in introducing this measure."

JCPML.  Records of the Commonwealth of Australia.  Digest of Decisions and Announcements and Important Speeches by the Prime Minister. No. 42, 16 September - 1 October 1942.  JCPML00110/47