The ‘Jobs for Women Campaign’ at BHP, Port Kembla, 1980-94

Robyne Murphy and Yasmin Rittau

In the 1980s, the ‘Jobs for Women Campaign’ successfully pressured BHP to provide jobs for ‘unskilled’ women at its Port Kembla plant. The following account of this path-breaking campaign is based on recollections of the campaign by Robynne Murphy and Yasmin Rittau, two of the activists involved. Robynne and Yasmin shared their recollections of the campaign with members of the Sydney Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History at one of the Branch’s regular evening talks held on 17 June 1994′.

We feel proud to have participated in achieving this historic landmark in Australian social and legal history. The campaign started 14 years ago with the aim of obtaining jobs for women at the Port Kembla steelworks. The campaign came to a successful conclusion only in March this yeat (1994, ed). the achievements of the campaign were numerous. The most important was the gaining of a substantial increase in the number of women employed on the shop floor at the steelworks.

The campaign had two distinct parts. Initially, it was a campaign to get jobs for women at the steelworks. Later it turned into a compensation case. We have been involved in both parts of the campaign. Yasmin worked at the steelworks for two years from 1981 to 1983 while Robynne has worked there for the past fourteen years. We both received compensation from BHP in 1988, along with 32 other women. The cost to the company was about $1 m. In addition, a few months ago, a further seven hundred women won an out-of court settlement for compensation which cost BHP an estimated $9m.

From 1977 to 1980, fifty-eight women were employed as steelworkers, which represented 1.35% of the workforce. Yet, between the start of the campaign in April 1980 and the end of that year, the number of women working at the steelworks increased to three hundred. By April 1981, the number of women employed had doubled again. Unfortunately BHP closed its books in July 1981 and thereafter recruited only a few people of either sex with specialist skills. However, nowadays there is a noticeable presence of women in management positions, which we also believe was part of the indirect effects of the campaign.

On the legal side, the campaign used the NSW laws on antidiscrimination which were introduced in 1977. We used the laws covering both direct and indirect discrimination. As far as the law on indirect discrimination was concerned we were the first test case for this law. Up to that stage, no-one knew how the 1977 legislation could be used, so our case was a real breakthrough.

Lead-up to the Campaign
The Wollongong women’s campaign started in 1980 around BHP’s employment policies. BHP was the main employer in the region with a workforce of about 20,000, and many of the jobs were of an unskilled nature. Out of a workforce of this size only a handful of women were employed, though this was not due to a lack of willingness of women to take up these jobs as evidenced by the number of women on the waiting list. In 1980 there were 2,016 women on the list compared with only a few men. Wollongong has a high migrant population and it was particularly the migrant women who applied for these jobs, with many of them not viewing work at the steelworks as non-traditional.

During the 1960s and 1970s men could expect to wait for about a week to get work after applying at the steelworks, while women waited for years and even then they could not expect to get work there. BHP’s employment practices included dividing its jobs into ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’ jobs. The few ‘women’s’ jobs available were generally the repetitive jobs that men did not want such as sorting tin in the tin mill. There was no obvious reason for the jobs to be divided in this way as the company had a wide variety of jobs available and in many of the jobs heavy weights were not required to be lifted. There had been some challenges to BHP’s employment practices in the early 1970s with some limited success. However, BHP basically continued its discriminatory hiring practices through the 1970s. In 1977 the NSW government introduced the AntiDiscrimination Act which made it illegal to discriminate against a person on the basis of sex. However, BHP ignored the law.

The Campaign
In 1980, a few women organised around a relatively small left-wing political party got together to begin a campaign against BHP’s discriminatory employment policies. This group of women wanted jobs at the steelworks, along with their male colleagues who were already working there. However, the women from this party faced a similar situation to all other women and were told at the steelworks’ employment office that there were no jobs for women. The party decided that the broader issue needed to be raised’ about women working in heavy industry. This politically alert group of women launched a campaign to challenge BHP’s neglect of women, both in Port Kembla and Newcastle. The group wanted to get work, not only for ourselves, but also for all the women who wanted to work at the steelworks. Whilst the Newcastle campaign dwindled, in the Illawarra the campaign quickly built up momentum, sparked general community discussion around the issue and attracted widespread sympathy and support. Besides encouraging a public debate, this campaign also attracted mostly migrant women to the group, who had been previously unsuccessful in gaining work at BHP. The company was obviously affected by the publicity as they started to hire more women. In addition to these developments the group of women also attained support from the Councillor for Equal Opportunity, who eventually negotiated a settlement with BHP to recruit the group of thirty four women. The women, ourselves included, were hired progressively between November 1980 and February 1981.

The group expected that our recruitment would ‘open the door’ for all other women who wanted work at BHP. Unexpectedly, however, BHP closed its books in July 1981, meaning that hardly any more workers of either sex were hired. Our hopes were dashed by these events. By 1982, rumours started to circulate around the steelworks about possible retrenchments. To make matters worse, the jobs of the women who eventually gained employment at BHP through our campaign were especially threatened, as we had the lowest seniority. The union and the company were keen to follow a retrenchment policy of ‘last-on, first off’. Unlike two years before, it was difficult at this time to launch a big publicity campaign around the women’s cause. The minds of people were on the retrenchments, of course, particularly as it concerned the men as this directly effected much of the community. At the beginning of 1983, some of our group were indeed retrenched but the retrenchments hadn’t gone as deep as we had feared. However, in the environment where retrenchments were imminent, many steelworkers accepted early retirement.

Court Action
When we initially heard of the retrenchments, the group re-activated its complaints with the Anti-Discrimination Board. This basically marked the beginning of a legal campaign to gain compensation. We hired a barrister and solicitor from the Public Interest Advocacy Centre to work on the legal case, as well as launching a huge campaign to gain legal aid. Our minds were still set on the wider significance of the case. It was thought by ourselves and our legal representatives that if the group of thirty four women could win a case for compensation the doors would be opened for all women who applied for work at the steelworks to gain compensation, irrespective of whether they were actually hired or not. Basically, we asked for compensation for discrimination as we had not been treated the same as men would have been in similar circumstances when we had applied for a job at the steelworks. The compensation was primarily to be for loss of wages and it was to be based on individual circumstances. We lost wages during the time we were on the waiting list at the steelworks, after 1977, and up until the time we actually got work, which was regarded as a case for direct discrimination. Wages were also lost when we were retrenched earlier than we would have been if we had been men. This was because the initial discrimination had left us with a lower seniority than we might otherwise have had. This was regarded as indirect discrimination. In addition, we asked for seniority back-dated to the time when we applied for jobs, rather than when we were hired. Many of the women had been on the waiting list for years, whereas men could expect to get hired within a week of applying. We won on all these accounts.

The campaign for jobs and compensation from BHP was a long and exhausting one. It was waged for 14 years by a group of women with few initial resources. In several important respects, it was a success. There were many times, though, when a successful outcome seemed like a very remote possibility. As such, the campaign stands as a testimony to women’s tenacity and endurance.