18 May 2021

Has the public service set the bar for wage transparency?

| Zoya Patel
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Australians don’t like talking about money but do we need more wage transparency to help us negotiate? Photo: File.

An unusual benefit of living in a place like Canberra, where the vast majority of white collar workers are employed by the government, is the level of transparency this provides on people’s average incomes.

It’s a standard part of Canberran vocabularies to reference Australian Public Service levels when talking about work – even when not talking about APS employees. I’m used to describing professional levels in terms of how they relate to the APS, for example, “they’re equivalent to an APS6” – and while the exact salary bands differ from department to department, this gives a clear sense of someone’s wage bracket.

In a culture like Australia’s where it’s awkward to talk about money, I find this transparency refreshing. It provides scope to assess whether someone’s pay is likely to be commensurate with their work performance (my APS friends regularly point out EL1s and EL2s who are earning far more than their junior officers and seem to do less in the way of work). It also gives individuals a sense of where they sit in the workplace landscape, and therefore what scope there is for negotiating promotions and pay rises.

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In the community sector, where I work, this type of transparency is harder to come by. In fact, my employer is the only one I know of that publishes its Enterprise Agreement publicly so all future employees and job applicants can see exactly what their pay rate will be and how it will increase should they join the team.

It also means that, internally, when you know someone’s level you can accurately assess their pay, and this opens up the avenue for discussing salaries, performance and pay rises at our regular employee reviews.

In other places I’ve worked, however, this hasn’t been the case. After I left one place I discovered I was being paid significantly more than my teammates, all of whom had been told there was no scope for a pay rise – even though I had negotiated one of over $10,000 more than I was offered at the time of employment.

Because no one knew anything about each other’s salary ranges, and we were all actively told not to discuss it with our peers, the atmosphere of secrecy allowed this huge wage discrepancy to continue unchecked, despite the fact that my duties didn’t significantly differ from my colleagues.

When we talk more about money, it does two things: first of all, it makes it harder for this sort of inequality and manipulation by employers to occur and, secondly, it empowers people to take control of their financial security, negotiate with their employers, and seek better outcomes, equipped with the facts.

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We know that wage growth in Australia is ostensibly at a standstill, so the only real mechanism for people to see their salaries increase is either by applying for alternative jobs with higher salaries or negotiating their own packages.

Until the private and NFP sectors are more transparent about salaries with their employees, our opportunities to do the latter are significantly reduced, as we’re forced to accept the information our employers give us regarding the potential for increases and the budget available.

Yes, it’s important to retain staff privacy, and individual wages and contracts should of course remain confidential. But having a sense of organisation levels, and their corresponding salary bands would significantly enhance transparency, and take the murkiness out of these conversations.

I do acknowledge that, having not worked in the APS for any significant amount of time, I don’t know if the ranking system of levels does enable more wage discussions in practice, but even having the information seems to be an important step in the right direction. Is this one of the things the APS has got right, and should we have a similar approach across more sectors?

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Zoya, a reporter-blogger, takes anecdotes from a couple of friends, then uses this to reflect on the whole of the El 1 and 2 cohort of the APS.
There’s no doubt some lower ranks work as hard as the executives, but the pay reflects the skill and responsibilities. You wouldn’t make the same argument about a junior doctor vs an experienced doctor. It’s automatically understood the experienced doctor is paid for his skill and experience, not because he works harder than everyone else. Same goes for the private sector.

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