International Women’s Day (IWD) is a day to challenge Australian women and men to consider the legacy that will be passed onto future generations of women.
On March 8, the Catholic Education Head Office welcomed activist and film maker Robynne Murphy to speak at their annual IWD lunch event. Robynne was instrumental in winning the right for women to work in BHP during the prolonged Jobs For Women dispute from 1980-1994 and is now making a documentary film that will tell the story using historical footage.
Robynne shared insights from one of the most important industrial relations successes in Australia's history. A 14 year battle, fought for women by women, which paved the way for women to work in blue collar industries. As a young activist, Robynne helped found the Jobs For Women campaign and was one of the first women to file a claim with the anti-discrimination board.
Robynne shared that in 1980 the situation for working class women in Wollongong was awful. Prevented from working at the steelworks, the city's major employer, women faced either exploitation in backyard sweatshops, or having to make a daily early morning journey to Sydney in the hope of finding work. Further sexual harassment was rife. Robynne told of when a local shop owner's sexual exploitation of the women's desperate situation was exposed, a 'spark was lit' that began a battle - jobs for women!
“It was a battle where working class and migrant women came up against the country's richest and most powerful company, from factory gates to the highest court in Australia” said Robynne. “The campaign navigated anti-discrimination laws that had not been tested in court. We struggled to access even the most basic legal aid, yet the movement grew. From handfuls camping at company gates in a makeshift ‘tent embassy’, the struggle expanded to hundreds of diverse women fighting a class action to win jobs supported by a growing collection of allies.”
(Photo supplied: Robynne Murphy)
During her presentation, Robynne specifically recognised the enormous courage of the many migrant women that joined the campaign, navigating substantial cultural issues, and how the Federated Ironworkers' Association of Australia provided ongoing support to the campaign. Robynne said that without these many community links forged, they simply would not have won.
Remarkably, many people have never heard of this effort. “It is one most important struggles and yet the least remembered, it is virtually unknown” said Robynne. “That is why it is so important to make a film that changed the situation for women across Australia. It is about equality for women, unionism and workers' rights, migrant justice, breaking down barriers, challenging corporate power and building unity. We achieved this as a group of women and it shows just what can be done!” The film portrays how solidarity can overcome the biggest of hurdles.
This year, the United Nations is asking the global community to #PressForProgress and be tenacious in accelerating gender equality and empowerment. Robynne acknowledged in her presentation today's ongoing problems in the workforce, with further fights to be fought around pay equality, sexual harassment and domestic violence. "This history's important to tell now, because in some ways the situation is worse because we have high unemployment, underemployment and it's been institutionalised. People don't understand what a full-time job is about or what union rights are and how unions can fight for our rights and we know sexual harassment is alive and well."
International Women's Day continues to be a rallying point for improving the economic, political and social futures of women. Every year, the Catholic Education Office’s IWD event brings together staff to honour this international celebration of women. Today and every day we #PressForProgress towards gender equality in Australian workplaces.
For more information about the film Jobs For Women, see the Facebook page.