Mettle tested, battle won

Women who humbled BHP celebrated in film

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GIANT SLAYERS: Roza Klujaricek, Slobodanka Joncevska and Fotini Voulgaris leave work AI&S steelworks in Port Kembla.

GIANT SLAYERS: Roza Klujaricek, Slobodanka Joncevska and Fotini Voulgaris leave work AI&S steelworks in Port Kembla.

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Women of Steel is a finalist in this year's Sydney Film Festival $10,000 Documentary Prize.

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FORTY years since a band of determined women took on The Big Australian in their fight for employment, their story is now the subject of a gritty new feature screening at the Sydney Film Festival.

Women of Steel, directed by Robynne Murphy and produced by Martha Ansara, is a finalist in this year's Sydney Film Festival $10,000 Documentary Prize.

The film is a personal story of the 14-year campaign by Robynne and hundreds of local migrant /working class women for the right to work at BHP-subsidiary Australian Iron & Steel in Port Kembla.

Some women had worked there in the mid-'70s, during the heady early days of the women's rights movement. But the momentum was lost.

"By the late '70s and '80s, we were told there were no jobs for women whatsoever, unless of course you did office work," Robynne said.

She said it was a purely managerial top-down decision not supported by the vast majority of men on the foundry floor.

"In fact, we camped outside the steelworks, which is covered in the film, and we won so much support from the steelworkers. They were fantastic.

"Their attitude was that a baby could do the work."

The reason for the management's hard line came out in when 34 of the women took the matter to the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board in 1984.

"They said they would love to employ us but there was a 35-pound weight restriction under the Factories, Shops and Industries Act."

The absurdity was patent. This was the weight of an average four-year-old, hardly heavy lifting for a woman in reasonable health.

A critical development came when board president Carmel Niland dressed and what was not.

It found, among other injustices, that 98% of jobs were labelled "men only" when most of these jobs did not require lifting over the 35 pounds specified in the law.

"They were just hiding behind the legislation," Robynne said.

"I think they felt they were above the anti-discrimination laws, that they were a big industrial company and these things didn't mean anything to them - a very elitist attitude."

She said most of the women were more than capable of doing the work.

"Most of the workforce was migrants. They had been recruited from overseas on the basis that they needed muscle; that they needed hard labour.

"So the families came across. And they had an expectation - particularly those from places like Eastern Europe - that the women would work too. Because those women were used to working hard."

In the end, the women triumphed. As a result of investigations by the anti-discrimination hearings before the Equal Opportunity Tribunal, 150 women were hired by AI&S to work as ironworkers.

Robynne enjoyed 30 years as a career steelworker on the floor of the Port Kembla plant, where her jobs included welder, crane driver and hot strip mill operator.

But it was interrupted as a result of the worldwide slump in steelmaking. Most of the women were retrenched based on the rule of "last hired, first fired".

Again, this was discriminatory. Had they had been hired in the first place, they would not have lost their job in the latest round of retrenchments.

"Some of the women had had their names down for 8-10 years. There was a separate file that they put all the women's applications in and it was never touched," Robynne said.

"It was about 1200 women, we found out. And a lot of the guys who were employed were a lot lighter than me - and I'm not skinny!"

So back the women marched to the tribunal.

Ultimately, the complaint went all the way to the High Court. In 1989, it ruled that AIS employment practices amounted to unlawful direct and indirect discrimination and awarded the women $1.4 million.

Former sex discrimination commissioner Sue Walpole described it as the most important case of its kind in Australian history.

Looking back, Robynne says of AIS (now a far more female-friendly BlueScope): "I think public pressure and community feeling embarrassed them to the point where they had to employ all the complainants, including me."

She is proud of the Jobs For Women campaign. "It was important part of Wollongong's history and women's history. It set a new precedent for women breaking into a male-dominated industry.

"I have women coming up to me - women at roadwork sites or wherever - saying I would never have gotten a job if not for what you women did in the '80s."

Robynne is also proud of what it accomplished for those migrant women, many of whom did not speak or read English well.

"I think that what when they got involved in the campaign, it gave them the confidence to work better within Australian society."

Today Robynne is retired and lives in Nelligan, upstream from Batemans Bay, where she drives the big truck for the local RFS brigade. She was on the ground right through the 2019-20 fires on the far south coast of NSW.

She is surprised and thrilled that the film has made it into the final 10 at the festival awards.

It is her second documentary to be screened there; her previous film was made in 1974.

She said the hardest part of making Women of Steel was raising the money. "Most film-makers get grants but because I hadn't made a film for 46 years and I was diving back in at the deep end."

Still, the generosity of others saw it to completion; more than 500 people donated money, the union movement helped out and original film footage was donated by the likes of WIN television and the trust of the late journalist Mike Willesee. The Illawarra Mercury lent a hand.

"The strength of the film is the authentic archival footage. I think it will really keep people captivated. It is 14 years of dramatic events told blow by blow, packed into one hour."

Women of Steel can be been seen online until June 21 right across Australia. To see the trailer or obtain a ticket ($15), go to ondemand.sff.org.au/film/women-of-steel

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