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Wednesday, 20 May 1942

Mr MENZIES (Kooyong) .- I move -

That the National Security (Employment of Women) Regulations under the National Security Act, made by Statutory Rules 1942, No. 146, be disallowed.

This statutory rule deals with certain aspects of the employment of women in time of war. I am not proposing to discuss the general question as to whether and to what extent women should be employed in the course of war, because in point of fact, I have no criticism to offer of the policy which has been pursued of bringing women more and more into the service of the country for war purposes. It is not only inevitable at a time like this, but also a good thing that every body in the community - man or woman - should learn a sense of responsibility for what is going to happen to the country. As the spokesman of the Opposition for this purpose, I want to direct my attention to the question not of whether women should be employed and how they should be paid for that employment, but of whether this statutory rule, which sets up a special tribunal to deal with the wages and conditions of women workers, should be approved.

This statutory rule, I submit, cuts right across the general principle of arbitration for which this Parliament has stood for many years, and the principle of adherence to arbitration for which the Opposition parties have stood in season and out of season for a very long time. What is done under the regulations contained in the statutory rule is worth examination. In the first place, regulation 5 provides that the Minister may appoint a Womens Employment Board, and then it proceeds to deal with the personnel of that body. I shall return to that in a moment, because it is a matter of some importance. The Minister may appoint a Women's Employment Board, and the board, by a subsequent regulation, is given certain authorities in connexion with this matter. What are those authorities? Regulation 6 provides that where an employer, because of a shortage or impending shortage of male labour, desires to employ females on work for which the rate of payment for male employees has been determined by any industrial award and for which a rate of payment for female employees less than the rate for male employees has not been so determined, he may make application to the board. In other words, if a person wishes to employ a woman at a rate less than that prescribed for a man, he shall under the conditions set out in this regulation, apply to the board for permission. I pause to draw the attention of the Minister to this point. A person who makes any such application - that is an employer - shall forthwith furnish one copy thereof to the secretary of the department, and one copy to such organization or to each of such organizations of employees as the chairman of the board specifies. In other words, provision is made for an employer who makes such application to give notice to unions, but not to organizations of employers. The trade union movement generally may be told about this. It may organize itself, approach the tribunal and ask for representation; but the employer, unless he chooses by some private arrangement to tell somebody else, has no means of notifying associations or organizations of employers. That is a small matter, but I mention it in passing.

Provision is also made for the manner in which the board shall deal with the matter. It is to determine the character of the work to be done, whether females may be employed, and the wages and conditions that shall be applicable to that particular prospective female employee. Sub-regulation 5 of regulation 6 provides that in deciding the percentage of the rate of payment for males to be paid to females the board shall take into account the efficiency of females in the performance of the work and any other special factors which may be likely to affect the productivity of their work in relation to that of males. I pause here to point out that the board is not told that it shall take into account the family obligations of the female employee. It is merely told that it must take into account her volume of production and her efficiency. There may be very many cases in which that is a very proper test; but I direct the attention of honorable members to the fact that for very many years, the basic wage has been determined on a family or social principle. When the Harvester standard was established in this country by the late Mr. Justice Higgins, he did so on the basis of a man, his wife, and three children. It is quite true that since then, there has been a slight increase of real wages, then a marked reduction during the economic depression, to be followed by two or three stages in which wages were restored on a. new basis. The result was that, in effect, the basicwage earner is getting to-day what the Harvester standard sought to give to him. Whether it is statistically correct to say that the average workman has a wife and three children is not the point. I suppose that on the average, the basic-wage earner has a wife and a fraction of a child, or a child and a fraction. But the truth remains that we have fixed basic wages in Australia on the principle of the social or family responsibility of the basic-wage earner. That, I would have thought, was a matter which should be considered by tribunals dealing with the wages of a worker. It is not for me to say what answer they should give. It is not for anybody in this House to say what answer they should give. But that that is a material factor to be taken into account is not only my opinion; it is also the settled practice of the Arbitration Court for a great number of years.

The regulation then proceeds, because the draftsman has recognized that one cannot in all circumstances prescribe the same wages for a woman as for a man, that the percentage to be paid to a female shall not be less than 60 per cent, nor more than 100 per cent, of the rate of payment determined for adult males employed on similar work. The comment which need be made at this stage is this-

Mr James - Females should get the same rate as males if they do the same work.

Mr MENZIES - I understand that a great number of current awards of the Arbitration Court dealing with the wages paid to women provide that females shall be paid 54 per cent, of the male wage. I do not know whether that is right or wrong, or whether it is too high or too low. I am not in a position to say. But I know that as the result of the prescription of 60 per cent., these regulations definitely operate so as to alter the percentages which have already been prescribed by industrial tribunals.

Mr Rosevear - According to the reasoning of the right honorable gentleman, it would be impossible for females to give equal work for equal pay.

Mr MENZIES - It would not; but if a woman were doing the job of a basicwage earner and received the basic wage, the honorable member would have some difficulty in justifying the payment to her of the same basic wage as that received by the male, because the male worker's wage is determined upon family responsibilities. Some payments have the basic wage as an ingredient. Others are payments for skill, or production, or what-you-will. In those cases, if the test is skill or production, that test ought to be applied equally irrespective of the sex of the worker. A great deal of work in this country is done 'by people on the basic wage. For many years, the basic wage has been designed to provide for a man with responsibility as a social unit.

Mr Rosevear - But in practice, bachelors are paid the basic wage.

Mr MENZIES - Quite so.

Mr Rosevear - And if bachelors, why not spinsters?

Mr MENZIES - A bachelor is paid the basic wage because a bachelor, in the normal order of things, looks forward to becoming a husband and the head of a family. The basic wage has been paid to bachelors because of that fact.

The only other point of detail I shall mention is that this special tribunal will make decisions in relation to various industries, and those decisions will operate irrespective of the fact that they may be utterly inconsistent with decision made by the Arbitration Court. Within the limits of its jurisdiction, this special tribunal has been given an over-riding authority in relation to the employment of women.

So far, I have referred to matters of detail, which might provoke considerable argument, but they have been matters which this Parliament is not called upon to determine. This Parliament is, however, called upon to determine two large questions of principle which lie right at the root of the structure of this special tribunal. The first of these is that the Government has set up a special tribunal to deal, not with a special industry, as, for example, the coal-mining industry, for which a special tribunal has been established, or for some subdivision of an industry, but with a class of worker to be found in any one of a hundred different industries. If it be sound to setup a special tribunal to deal with and regulate the employment of women, would it not be equally sound to set up a similar tribunal to deal with juvenile workers, or certain other classes of workers? Yet, if that procedure were followed, the whole basis of the jurisdiction of the Arbitration Court would be undermined. I say with gravity, and deep consideration, that the setting up of this special tribunal is thoroughly unsound. The Arbitration Court has exercised important functions over a long period of years, and it has discharged them sometimes to the satisfaction of one party, and sometimes to the satisfaction of another. But who will say that, on the whole, the arbitration system of this country has not been beneficial to the wage-earners? I am quite sure that it has been beneficial to them. The Arbitration Court has been able to deal with the vast and comprehensive problems that have come before it because it has been able to deal with industry as a whole. When it has had to deal with the apprenticeship system, for example, it has been able to regard the subject in its relation to all industries. Similarly, when, it has been required to deal with the problem of the employment of women, it has been able to apply broad principles to many industries. So we have had some uniformity in practice. But now the Government is saying : " The Arbitration Court is to have no jurisdiction in relation to female workers. For the future, it is to deal only with male workers.'" For, obviously, this is the first step to that end.

Mr Sheehan - The purpose of the Government is to simplify procedure.

Mr MENZIES - A matter is not simplified by splitting it up under two or three headings, and allowing one tribunal to deal with one aspect and another with another. That is the way to complexity, not to simplicity.

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