Last week, representatives from 15 Australian-based organisations got together in Sydney and Melbourne to discuss what social justice in the workplace could or perhaps should mean.

Hosted by the Living Future Institute of Australia and sponsored by DesignInc, McLachlan Lister and Viridis, the issues discussed ranged from diversity, equity, safety, worker benefit, local benefit and stewardship.

Key talking points included the often undiscussed question of worker happiness; the more often discussed challenge of income inequality; and the distressingly familiar gender equity issue, with the latter being reported by the Australian Bureau of Statistics as only getting worse with the national gender pay gap increasing to a record high of 18.8 per cent. In other words, on average, a man working full-time earns $1587.40 a week whereas a woman working full-time earns $1289.30 a week. That equates to difference of $298.10 a week, or if you would like to think of it in other terms, an extra 68 days a year that a woman has to work for the same pay on average!

The gender pay gap has increased markedly in three industries: administrative and support services, wholesale trade, and manufacturing. Conversely, it has reduced substantially in electricity, gas, water and waste services; health care and social assistance; and only slightly more promisingly, construction, where it fell by 3.6 per cent from a dizzying 20.1 per cent down to 16.5 (November 2013 – November 2014, Source: Workplace Gender Equality Agency).

This followed news earlier this year that the federal government announced changes to water down gender reporting guidelines for businesses – a major step backwards in closing the gender pay gap.

Issues such as these has sparked fierce debate, and have boosted the emergence of the JUST Label, which provides a clear and focused way for organisations to publicly disclose how they perform on 22 social justice and equity indicators.

And its effects seem to be working. While the JUST program goals include improving practices of organisations worldwide, creating a common language for social justice issues, and elevating the conversation around social justice, crucially, it is also a big draw for new talent. In a study published by Net Impact in 2012, when presented with a choice between a “status quo” organisation or a JUST organisation, 58 per cent of college students stated that they would take a 15 per cent pay cut to work for a firm that had values that mirrored their own.

Encouragingly, the region and the building industry is helping to lead the way globally, with one building sustainable development consultancy in Australia and a commercial interiors product supplier in New Zealand amongst only 17 organisations worldwide who have been successful in attaining the JUST Label.

In an environment where many businesses seem to succumb to the policy environment of racing to the bottom, hopefully this is just the beginning of an industry shift that is moving from being “less bad” to showing what “good” can look like.

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