The migrant women who took on an Australian mining giant over the right to work

A new documentary tracks the little-known campaign that saw hundreds of women from Wollongong take the biggest employer in 1980s Australia to the High Court.

Slobodanka Joncevska (centre) leaves work at the Port Kembla steelworks with two female colleagues.

Slobodanka Joncevska (centre) leaves work at the Port Kembla steelworks with two female colleagues. Source: Supplied

When Slobodanka Joncevska arrived on the New South Wales south coast from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, she barely spoke English. 

But 17 years later, in 1989, she would find herself in the highest court in Australia, as part of the largest and longest-running sex-discrimination case in the nation’s history. 

“I was looking to make a better future,” the now 70-year-old told SBS News ahead of the release documentary Women of Steel, which showcases the landmark legal battle against mining giant BHP. 

“I was very poor with English at this time, but I had a hope for somebody to help me.”

Slobodanka in the 1980s.
Source: Supplied

The film, a finalist in the Australian Foundation Award for documentary at the Sydney Film Festival, begins in 1980 when a group of women in Wollongong launched a campaign to be allowed to work alongside men at BHP’s Port Kembla steelworks. 

At the time, the influence of BHP in the country was so vast that it was nicknamed the “Big Australia”. The steelworks, run by Australian Iron and Steel, a subsidy of BHP, employed around 20,000 people in the early 1980s, many of them new migrants from Macedonia, Turkey, Croatia, Greece and Spain.

But despite the need for workers to fill unskilled positions, the company had refused to employ women beyond a small number of service roles.

Records from the time show more than 2,000 women, many new migrants, were on waiting lists for jobs, while men were largely hired within days. Some women had been on the list for seven years, despite recently passed legislation that banned discrimination on the basis of race, gender or marital status in NSW.

Jobs for Women organiser and Women of Steel director Robynne Murphy.
Source: Supplied

A group of local women who had been rejected from the steelworks - including documentary director Robynne Murphy - decided to set up a ‘Jobs for Women’ tent embassy near the factory and handed out flyers in “six or seven different languages”, urging women to join their campaign.

“When I moved to Wollongong, I realised just how desperate, particularly the migrant community, were in terms of getting work and BHP was the major employer of the whole Illawarra,” she told SBS News.

“We found out that for women who tried to apply for the steelworks there was a separate waiting list. So, you’d go in and apply for a job and the company would say there are no jobs for women.

“The NSW anti-discrimination legislation had been in place for over three years, but you wouldn’t think so in Wollongong.”

Slobodanka had previously been employed by BHP but left after a few months to have children. When she returned six years later to ask for her job back, she said she was told: “you’re a mother now, stay home and look after your kids”.

Shortly after, she came across a flyer in Macedonian distributed by the Jobs for Women campaign and decided to join. 

One of the Jobs for Women campaign posters, featuring Robynne (left) and Slobodanka (right).
Source: Supplied

“That was very key to our campaign, that we could not campaign unless we had migrant women involved,” Robynne said.

“The whole issue of not having English as a first language … the women really did have to put their trust in the main organisers who did speak English as a first language, but we really tried to make sure we were always acting on behalf of everyone.”

What the group didn’t know was the campaign would end up lasting 14 years and culminate in a High Court class action victory against BHP, paving the way for women to work in blue-collar industries. 

After agreeing to hire more than 150 women in response to the campaign, Australian Iron and Steel in 1982 let hundreds of workers go under the “last on, first off” principle. Because the women had only recently been hired, most of them quickly lost their jobs.

They then took a claim to the on behalf of 34 women to the Equal Opportunity Tribunal, arguing that had they not been subject to discrimination when they first applied, they would not have let go. In 1986, the tribunal found in favour of them women, awarding them more than $1 million.

BHP appealed the decision, taking the matter to the High Court, where the tribunal's decision was upheld in 1989. The ruling allowed for a further 709 individual claims to be settled.

Of the final group of women, Robynne said more than 90 per cent came from migrant backgrounds. “It was a wonderful hotpot of different languages and different cultures,” she said.

Both Slobodanka and Robynne went on to have 25-year and 30-year careers at the steelworks respectively. 

“I’m not embarrassed to say I worked at BHP, I’m proud of that,” Slobodanka said. 

“I very much appreciate when I can see young women on TV, the young generation they’ve got an equal job, even in BHP, that makes me very, very happy … my heart is full.”

Women of Steel will screen online from 10 to 21 June as part of the Sydney Film Festival

Published 10 June 2020 at 4:20pm
By Maani Truu