Interview Transcript form Illawarra Stories Wollongong City Libraries Oral History Project – Diana Covell
Interviewer: Clara Weibers
Interview date: 9 May 2017
Clara Wiebers I’m here with Diana Covell author of Najdovska and others, a history of the Wollongong jobs for women campaign 1980-1994.
This item was submitted to the inaugural local history short story competition in 2016.
The research paper comprehensively covers the arduous 14 years of campaigning for the right to work at the Port Kembla steelworks. I have the pleasure of speaking with Diana today at Warrawong Library as part of the Warrawong Oral History Project. Welcome to the library Diana.
Diana Covell Thanks very much Clara.
Clara Wiebers If you don’t mind we could just have a brief er introduction about yourself and when you first came down to the Illawarra and for what reason.
Diana Covell Fine. Well, um, as you know I wasn’t born in the Illawarra, but then most people aren’t, because Wollongong is a city built by migrants. But I only migrated from Sydney, um, in 1978, and, um, I came down mainly to look for work. And also I, um, was a member at the time of a small left-wing political group called the Socialist Workers Party, and I had volunteered to come down and be the first woman, um, who was a member to set up
a new branch of the Socialist Workers Party in Wollongong.
Um, and my boyfriend came soon afterwards and we, you know, wanted to find our first home together. Um, so that was another reason. Um, but at the time I thought that I’d have no trouble transferring my job um where I used to work at the Redfern Mail Exchange to another job with the Post Office down in the Illawarra. But that didn’t happen, and so I found myself looking for work and the main employer at the time, well the biggest employer of course was BHP’s. BHP’s steelworks at Port Kembla, and they were advertising for jobs every day in the local “Mercury”. Um, but it turned out that it was jobs for men rather than
just jobs. Um, because whenever, um, I went to apply there, I was told there were no jobs for women, and I saw a whole lot of other women, um, coming to apply and they were all told the same thing.
Clara Wiebers Is this what, um, spurred on the jobs for women campaign?
Diana Covell Absolutely. Um, it was because there were so few jobs available anywhere really, even in, you know, clothing and retail, you know, shops and things. Um, the sewing factories where a lot of, um, women had got jobs, um, previously, um, were either…Well they were affected by the recession at the time and so a lot of people were retrenched, and many of the women who joined the campaign in 1980, um, had been doing piecework in the home or trying to get a job as a cleaner, a casual cleaner or something like that, um…
Clara Wiebers So what were the reasons then that BHP were giving you, and the women in particular, saying that there was there was no work for women? Were they, were they explicitly saying that there were no jobs for women?
Diana Covell They did. They said there were no jobs for women. But they didn’t actually give any reasons at the time. And even if you asked, “Well why,” you know, “how come men are being employed, we can see men being employed every day?” ” Oh well, there are no jobs for ladies.” Sometimes they said there are no facilities for ladies. But generally it was just like a broken record: no jobs for women. And it wasn’t until, um, August 1980, after we’d already started the campaign that, um, and we’d lodged complaints with the Anti-Discrimination Board that, um, half a dozen of us who’d, um, put in complaints were called up to Sydney, um, by the Counsellor for Equal Opportunity, Carmel Niland, at the time, ah, to
a meeting with people from BHP and also reps from the Federated Ironworkers’ Union to try and conciliate our complaints, you know. But, um, basically nothing happened.
The, the complaints weren’t resolved. But it was at that meeting in August 1980 that we first heard the reason that the company refused to hire women, and it turned out that that was going to be their main legal defence. And what they said was, um, that Section 36 of the Factories, Shops and Industries Act had a clause which stated that women, um, could only lift no more than 35 kilos,35 pounds, sorry 35 pound or 16 kilos. And we found out later that that Act, that part of the Act, had been introduced in 1912 [laughs].
Clara Wiebers Well time for a change!
Diana Covell That’s right! That’s right. And it was really quite…I mean that was significant because when the Anti-Discrimination Board heard that, they commissioned a survey sometime later to be carried out in the steelworks. And they employed, um, Chloe Refshauge, um, who was an occupational health and safety researcher, to conduct this survey throughout the Works. And the evidence from that survey was absolutely important in
our court case when it eventually went to court.
Clara Wiebers Were there any other, I mean given that like the Anti-discrimination Act had only just been introduced three years before that.
Diana Covell hmm hmm
Clara Wiebers. Were you surprised at the amount of, more actions that you needed to take in order to get work?
Diana Covell Yeah well, that’s right the, the Anti-discrimination Act was introduced in July 1977. And that was, that came about because of years of campaigning by women in the women’s movement, you know. Um, so it was a great advance. Um, and there was the Women’s Advisory Unit and women’s, um, you know, other things that had been introduced as a result of the women’s movement, um, to benefit women. So we were lucky, um, to be able to, ah, try to use that. We, we thought,
“Well great, there’s legislation there, so we should be able to, um, you know, take this matter up, because it says that there should be no sex discrimination in the, in the workforce.” Um, but easier said than done because we found then that, um, in order to have, in order to take up a case against BHP, which was of course the biggest company in Australia, um, we would need to seek legal aid to pay for the costs of going to court, because we were all unemployed. And um…So we applied for legal aid, and we were rejected, and we didn’t really understand why. Um, the first time they said, “Oh,” you know “some of the women had work, had husbands, who y’know had jobs.” But there was no way that we could have afforded the costs anyway. Um, and for those of us who were unemployed and single, it was impossible. Um, so we kept on applying for legal aid, and they told us after that, um, that there was – the case, um, had no merit. And we said, ‘Well how could that be because it hasn’t been tested yet?”
So that was a judgment that we thought, um, was strange, because we hadn’t even been able to take the case up. Um, ah, so eventually after 16 months of campaigning and, um, direct lobbying, ah, including with the Premier at the time, Neville Wran, we were eventually granted legal aid, but only three days into the first court hearing in 1984. So, you know, it was, it was [laughs] a whole campaign just to get legal aid so that we could even take up, um, the fight to get jobs through the Court.
Clara Wiebers And what was the result then, of the court case in 1984 that we’re talking about?
Diana Covell Well, by the time that, um, the Tribunal had heard all the evidence, including the results of the survey, um, in the Steelworks, and there were 34 complaints, ah, and we were all in the witness box. So it was, you know, not until, um, I think it was the 30th September 1985, that the outcome was heard. And we won! And it was fantastic. And the, yeah, the Equal Opportunity Tribunal upheld all of our complaints. So that was a wonderful, um, thing to happen. Um, I mean it was a victory for all women, or anyone who’s been discriminated against, because this was the first-class action of its kind in Australia.
Clara Wiebers Yes. Yes.
Diana Cordell But of course the company immediately appealed. And, ah, so it went to the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeal rather, in New South Wales and they dismissed the company’s appeal. And then the company, um, appealed again, and it was referred to the High Court of Australia. So it was a long time in the running – all the legal action – um, and it wasn’t until 1989 that the High Court heard the, um, case for our, our women’s case, and 1991 they made the announcement that we had won. That they dismissed the company’s appeal…
Clara Wiebers That’s almost 10 years later.
Diana Cordell It was 11 years, that’s right. Yeah, and then there was a whole lot of other women who had similar complaints, but whose cases were not part of the original test case who, um, whose, whose complaints were then settled out of court as well.
Clara Wiebers But this is all came about like…This is like we were talking earlier, just because you wanted a job.
Diana Covell Yeah, that’s right.
Clara Wiebers It’s all because you wanted a job.
Diana Covell Exactly!
Clara Wiebers And um…Just if we can go back a little step about some of the actions you actually took to try to get the job. In the book, which we can talk a little bit more about in a moment, um, there was a, a part where you were talking about, ah, forming the tent embassy, you know, in order to get jobs. Can you just recall a couple of those memories for us?
Diana Covell Well, the campaign itself, which mainly took place in 1980, you know, um, and began officially in April, because the Working Women’s Charter group, which I was a part of at the time, um, held a public seminar. Um, we were all shocked to read in the “Mercury”, um, about this chicken shop owner who’d exploited and sexually molested 41 teenage girls who’d come to work in his shop. And, um, yes, one of the girls had complained. Their father, who was a unionist, who took it up and with the Labor Council, and Fay Campbell, who was the, um, Organiser for the shop, Shoppies at the time, raised this with the “Illawarra Mercury” and um, you know, highlighted the fact that this was a case of, um, an unscrupulous employer exploiting the high unemployment amongst women, and young people in particular, at the time.
Um, so the outrage that that caused was the spark that kind of galvanised the campaign, and the campaign for jobs for women targeting the Steelworks as the biggest employer, um, took place at that seminar. And after that, immediately after that, um, Peggy Errey, who was, um, the main Organiser with the Miscellaneous Workers Union, um, said “You know, you girls should go and put complaints into the Anti-Discrimination Board”. And so we did, and, um, more and more women got involved. ?Slabadanka Janchevzka? was the first, um, of the Macedonian women to get in touch, and she rang me up on my number where I was living at Warrawong, sorry Lake Heights, um, in Canberra Road, Lake Heights. And my phone number was in the “Mercury” saying, um, you know, any women who are interested, you know, if you’ve tried to get a job and been knocked back at the Steelworks and you’d like to be part of a campaign, please contact this number.
And so ?Slabadanka? was the first of the women to do that, and she introduced us to other women around, um, the Illawarra and mainly around Warrawong and Warilla and, um, Cringila and Barrack Heights areas. And, um, so it sort of snowballed and lots more women got involved and put in camp- complaints. But we decided that what we’d have to do to put pressure on the company, as well as the complaints to the Anti-Discrimination Board, we needed to get out there and make, um, BHP aware, and make everybody in the community aware too, um, that we weren’t going to go away. And so we did a number of actions. Um, but the main one was the Tent Embassy and that was on the coldest days of the year, um, 3rd to the 5th of July in 1980. And we pitched some tents on a little patch of ground near Cringila railway station. Um, and, um, the Labor Council helped look after us and Miners’ Union brought us coals to keep us warm and um…It was a real community event: lots lots and lots of people came out. It was, it was a great thing, you know. Um, some people brought guitars for a sing along and ?Slabadanka? and a whole lot of other women brought food, um, soup and home-made bread for us to eat and…
Clara Wiebers No shortage of support.
Diana Covell No shortage of support. The media came out in full force. Four of us were being interviewed at any one time.
Clara Wiebers And those of us who are old enough to remember, Mike Walsh came and turned up as well.
Diana Covell [laughs ] That’s right! That’s right! [laughter] That was great because, yeah, we were, at first we were a bit worried about just what he was doing. But one of our campaigners, Cheryl Bayford, um, who, who was, was born here, um, she was doing weights, lifting weights at the time, and so he brought down a set of dumbbells for Cheryl to try, and there was a whole group of men gathered around watching, you know, and Cheryl lifted the dumbbells to the cheers of the crowd. And then Walsh asked, you know, if there were any guys around who’d be prepared to lift them, and there was not one! They were all very, very nervous until a very tall, big Tongan man sort of said, “OK I can do it”, and he lifted them up.
But I mean the, we went along with that because the whole point was that, you know, it’s, it’s not just a matter of gender, you know, what you can achieve, um, and the kind of work that people can do, um, it’s often individuals, some individuals are stronger than other, others. Um, and in fact when, um, the company told us that the main reason they weren’t going to employ us was, um, because there was a weight limit on what women could lift or move in the, in the space of work time, it turned out, the Union told us, the Federated Iron workers’, um, that 70 percent of all the workers’ compensation cases, um, at the Steelworks were from men who had sustained injuries, back injuries, due to lifting heavy weights. And there was no protection for men at all.
So, um, the whole idea of this weight limit became, you know, an important part of our case. Um, and, ah, in the end, you know, we’ll go into that in a minute, but, um, getting back to the tent embassy, what was really effective about that was that not only did it bring all sorts of people from the community to support us, we gained several thousand signatures from male steelworkers on our petition supporting our right to work in the industry. Um, but also, um, it put pressure on the company, because we had a big sign saying “honk for support” [laughs]. And, um, on the second day there was so much noise from passing trucks and cars, and so many more women had come because they’d heard about the tent embassy, and they’d rushed to the steelworks employment office, that the company actually had to close the employment office, and all the women who had been rejected for jobs came across the road and joined our campaign.
Clara Wiebers And as a result, jobs were suddenly available for women!
Diana Covell Yes, it was interesting, interesting! All of a sudden, um, right in that week, the very week that we were holding the tent embassy, 64 women were employed at the Steelworks. Um, and, you know, so that was a really big breakthrough, yep.
Clara Wiebers Now you talked about the women, um, who
called you and came to the very first meeting at your home in, in Lake Heights. Um, was
one of the women Najdovska.
Diana Covell Well, she was one of the ones that ?Slobadanka?
?Jancevzska? introduced me to. So ?Donka? Najdovska um, absolutely sweet woman, um, who was so, always, um, so cheerful and, um, got on with everybody, um, she was a lovely spirit and, um, yeah, it was her name ?Donka? Najdovska, Najdovska and others – this is the reason I put that in the story because it was actually the name given to our court action as well: “Najdovska and Others versus BHP”,P or versus Australian Iron and Steel. And, um, the reason for that was also that ?Donka? had put in, um, when she put in her application for a job, um, at the Steelworks, it was the closest to the time of the Anti-discrimination Act in around July 1977. So, you know, they were, there was that reason, a legal kind of reason, for having ?Donka? there as the principal complainant. But we also felt that she kind of was our mascot, if you like, or goodwill spirit, and, um, we miss her very much, because sadly she recently passed on. Um, so I wanted to include her name and a little bit about her as a tribute to her as well in this story.
Clara Wiebers That’s great. And just finally, um, Diana, we could talk much, for much longer about this part of your life, but back to the, to the campaign and the, and the successful result of the, the case. What impact do you think it is had on, on the community and society
as a whole?
Diana Covell Well there’s a few things. One is that, um, as some of the Union officials from the Federated Ironworkers’ said, um, the fact that we took on BHP, the most ruth-, the biggest, most ruthless employer in Australia at the time, and were prepared to get out there and confront them in public both through the anti-discrimination complaints, but also most importantly through actions like the tent embassy, um, we won a huge amount of support from the community for just doing that, being prepared to do that.
The fact that we beat them, this huge company, um, through a straight-out confrontation in the court process, um, and also basically put pressure on them to employ women, ‘cos in the end more than 300 women were employed as a result of this campaign in Wollongong, and about 60 in the Newcastle Steelworks as well. Um, that, you know, that was a really significant thing, and it put all other employers in Australia of any size, um, on notice that they could not, you know, um, discriminate. And in fact because the very eve of the first
victory decision by the Equal Opportunity, um, Tribunal, um, back in 1985, on the evening that that was announced, Prime Minister Hawke announced that he would be introducing affirmative action legislation, you know, federally for any employer with 100 or more employees. So that was a kind of spinoff too. And, um, any employer would have to take note and incorporate non-discriminatory hiring practices. Um, and also, for BHP like, I mean they had obviously fought, their, their main, their Steelworks, Australian Iron and Steel’s their solely owned subsidiary, so it was their company, and, um, they had established a reputation of kind of never being beaten or resisted…So for a group of unemployed women [laughter] um, to take them on and win was, you know, something!
Clara Wiebers Worthy of congratulations.
Diana Covell And, but the, the other thing I think that was important was, there were genuine long-lasting changes brought about to legislation, as a result of the Wollongong Jobs for Women campaign. Because the, the, um, law, the weight limit law, that had been used to discriminate against women, to stop women getting jobs there, and in other industries, um but not in women’s industries, not in industries like, um, laundry work or cleaning or childcare or anything like that, where women were – nursing – they were all exempt interestingly enough from these laws.
It was only in male-dominated areas: it was to stop women getting jobs in these areas. Um, but this got overturned as a result of our case, and the law got extended to protect men as well, regardless of gender. So, um, I think that was important that it’s been codified in workplace health and safety laws, WorkCover.
Clara Wiebers That’s fantastic, it really is. And if anybody is interested, um, “Najdovska and Others: A history of the Wollongong Jobs for Women Campaign 1980-1994”, is available for loan at libraries. Diana thank you so much again for being a part of the Warrawong Oral History Project.
Diana Covell My pleasure thank you very much.