Has the public service set the bar for wage transparency?

Zoya Patel 18 May 2021 8

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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8 Responses to Has the public service set the bar for wage transparency?
n8t n8t 5:40 pm 25 Mar 21

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.

Edgar Sharp Edgar Sharp 4:29 pm 25 Mar 21

Of course it would help in some circumstances, but fundamentally there will always be differences between individuals capabilities. Those at the higher end of the competence scale would make more money than those at the lower end. If you don't do that you are effectively flipping the pay scale upsidedown, so that the less performing people get more money per task completed.

The other issue to consider is if you make all pay transparent you will have to occasionally break a few hearts and reject paying a person as much as someone else for reasons that would inevitably be transparent to (ie. Sorry mate, you're not as good as that other person). Be careful what you wish for.

Cary Elliot Johnson Cary Elliot Johnson 4:22 pm 25 Mar 21

Health (State) is vastly different to the rest of the ACT PS salaries too. Factor in weekend and night shift penalties, allowances for attraction and retention, on call or short call, and salary packaging and you can have a variance on one level of between $80-140k per annum. Other State Departments vary for the same reasons, such as Environment, Police and Emergency Services etc. These factors at least bring SOME State wages up to that of the Feds.

Shane Nayler Shane Nayler 3:38 pm 25 Mar 21

This. The only people who benefit not talking about salaries are at the top of org charts. If you aren't open about your salary you can't expose the rampant inequalities. Simple as that.

Carol Gainey Carol Gainey 10:27 am 25 Mar 21

It also reflects the importance of union membership and the strength of the collective. The APS has strong union membership and with that comes more transparency and respect for workers.

Reb Stanway Reb Stanway 7:36 am 25 Mar 21

Try working it community services front line - and having to do more for less $, as well as mental fatigue, and no organisational support. Been doing this for nearly 20 yrs, and still waiting on pro rata and long service leave - which is dependent on govt funding cycles and no guarantee of contracts. Ugh

    Edgar Sharp Edgar Sharp 4:34 pm 25 Mar 21

    Reb Stanway It's very illegal for a person entitled to LSL to not get it. Regardless of whatever contracts the company might be seeking or money they're waiting on.

    Pro rata leave/bonuses/etc are a different story though

Travissi Gilbert Travissi Gilbert 7:31 am 25 Mar 21

It is concerning to read there is a lack of transparency as to community sector classifications and pay grades alluded to in this piece.

A large number of employees in Community Sector Orgs in the ACT are covered by this publicly available industrial instrument: https://www.fwc.gov.au/document/agreement/AE418104

Pay rates, classifications and commensurate responsibilities plus attached schedules stipulating conditions endorsed by individual orgs are attached to the Agreement.

While some orgs determine their own enterprise agreements, most not covered by the MEA would default to the award. Pay grades publicly available here: http://www.fairwork.gov.au/pay/minimum-wages/social-and-community-services-industry-pay-rates

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