I was pretty mad when I calculated my gender pay gap last week for Equal Pay Day. I went through and answered the questions and came back with a shocking total! I’m a queer woman in my 30s, working in an industry where discretionary pay is the norm.
Just as I was about to Tweet my invoice at Scott Morrison, something held me back. I remembered the dagger hanging above my head: the pay secrecy clause in my contract. If I can’t talk about my pay at work (or outside of work for that matter), how can I get any action on this issue? How am I going to fix something we don’t even know the size of? I feel like I’m going into a fight with my hands tied behind my back!
Do you have any advice? I’m a union member, but sadly one of only a few of us here. I’m going to work with my organiser on a plan, but it feels like a big mountain to climb right now.
Riddles in the Dark
As always, we’re glad to hear you’re angry! Not because we want you to be angry, but because it’s the inevitable first step on a journey. We’re less glad to hear that you feel like it’s a hopeless situation, because hope is the second step in the Union Activist’s Patented, Tried-and-True 3-Step Program™: anger, hope, action.
Reading between the lines of your letter, we think hope is the thing you really want from us. Action will come soon, and will be guided by someone with a more intimate understanding of the situation than an advice column (like your union organiser) but for now we can do our best to show you that there is a way through. Grab a stress ball and come with us!
First, the bad news. It won’t be a shock to you that our current industrial laws aren’t exactly perfect. Sometimes, when the deck is stacked against you, it’s important to know that. In this case, it’s an unfortunate truth that the pay secrecy clause in your contract is likely pretty iron-clad. A contract can’t take away anything laid out in the National Employment Standards or your Award/EBA, but the ability to talk openly about your salary isn’t a legal “right” laid out anywhere, unfortunately.
Obviously nothing is guaranteed, but pay secrecy clauses are certainly enforceable and breaching it can very realistically result in your termination. The doubly outrageous thing is that, at least in the contracts we’ve seen, it’s not just your salary but the entirety of your employment conditions that are likely bound by confidentiality.
HOWEVER (and this is where we’re going to channel our inner troublemaker spirit) that’s not to say there’s nothing to be done.
You can’t rally against pay secrecy, but you can rally for pay transparency.
The public sector has strong requirements around transparency (and thus a much smaller gender pay gap - 12.2% compared with 21.3% in the private sector) because of decades of fighting by union members. Bosses don’t like it, but we have a proud history of doing things bosses don’t like.
Without any mention of your own personal circumstances (thus no breach of your contract) and with the backing of the union, there’s nothing stopping you from talking about broader organisational changes that would be beneficial to everyone.
Transparency in pay would mean everyone would have more information at their fingertips when they go into bargaining; whether that’s individual or collective. Statistics also show that pay transparency will help to reduce the earnings gap between white men and everyone else.
Naturally, there are going to be folks who have been so captured by individualist capitalist rhetoric that they view their own higher pay rate as evidence of their own superior work ethic, skill, and negotiating prowess, and they might therefore resent greater equity across the board. But put it to them this way: if they genuinely are harder working and better at their job than everyone else, surely they have nothing to hide!
Trust us, sister, you’re not the only one fired up about this stuff and we sincerely doubt you’re the only one at your workplace either. You might be surprised at how many people are uncomfortable, or straight-up angry, about this state of affairs. Research from a global survey shows that 70% of employees favour greater pay transparency.
Now, when it comes to the final step in the process - action - that’s where the union will be the best source of information. Don’t do anything rash without giving them a heads up and nutting out a plan of action. We can tell you, however, that the first steps will be to start recruiting! You’re going to need to fight this one together.
Our message is this: do not despair. Your hands are not as bound as you think they are. Creativity has always been one of our strengths, as well as fighting our way out of impossible situations.