Slobodanka is one of the many little-known pioneers who shaped Australia’s history: the migrant women who took on BHP in the first sex discrimination class action heard in the High Court.
Preview above: The female pioneers who shaped Australia discuss what it takes to break new ground and navigate their way to the top. Tuesday, September 10 at 8:30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand.
Slobodanka Joncevska moved to Wollongong from Macedonia, in the former Yugoslavia, in 1972 as a 22-year-old. She had a job at the local steelworks before becoming pregnant within months and deciding to leave.
At the time, mining giant BHP was the largest manufacturing employer in Australia and was an iconic part of the Illawarra landscape at Port Kembla, where subsidiary Australian Iron and Steel operated the steelworks.
After caring for her children at home for six years, Slobodanka turned to the steelworks once more as a means to support her family.
“I thought that I'm young and strong, I can do any job,” she says.
“[BHP said] we haven't got jobs for women now. And I was arguing, ‘But I was working there and a lot of women were working, why can't I have my job back?’”
A campaign leaflet that Slobodanka mistook for an employment ad unexpectedly connected her with left-wing activists, who were campaigning against BHP’s employment stance.
“We knew that there were 2,000 women on the books [who’d applied for work] and some of them were waiting up to nine years,” says Lou-anne Barker, a then-member of the Socialist Workers Party.
Records show between 1977 and early-1980 the steelworks took on 4,289 new employees of which 58 were women.
The majority of those fighting for work had migrated, like Slobodanka, from places including Macedonia, Turkey, Croatia, Greece and Spain.
“I didn’t want to be a political symbol…My husband worked for a government job,” says Slobodanka. “Everybody [was] scared our husbands [would] lose the job.”
However the activists and migrant women banded together to lodge 34 complaints with the Anti-Discrimination Board and launch a public campaign, after which they were employed. What followed was two years of hard work and camaraderie – Slobodanka in the tin mill and Lou-anne in the coke ovens.
But a downturn in the industry saw some of the women retrenched, under a “last on, first off” policy typically viewed as fair in the industry.
Yet in the case of the female steelworkers, because of their initial delayed employment, they were among the newest employees and thereby the most likely to lose their jobs.
The women reactivated their complaints with the Anti-Discrimination Board and began Australia’s longest-running sex discrimination case.
The class action was fought all the way to the High Court. Slobodanka recalls standing in the courtroom when the opposing legal team questioned why the women should be employed.
“I was so upset about a question [they asked], ‘Why isn’t this woman sitting at home? You got a baby to look after, look [after] your kids at home.’”
After 14 years, the migrant women who took on the mining heavyweight were awarded $1.4 million compensation. By that time, the number of women involved in the case had grown from 34 to 709.
“It was a tremendous victory and women got compensation as well as an offering of their jobs back,” says Lou-anne.
Slobodanka went on to work at the steelworks for 25 years.
“You have to make the life. Doesn't matter where you work, you have to make the life,” she says.