PENNY Carr is co-ordinator of the Tenants' Union of Queensland, and was named Delegate of the Year at the ACTU National Union Awards in Melbourne last month. She has been a member of The Services Union since 1993 and has been actively engaged in campaigning for the industrial and working rights of colleagues in the Social and Community Services Sector, including the state and national pay equity campaigns. She is at the forefront of advocating for her sector and union members, and was nominated for the award for her work leading the fight to save Queensland's tenant services from savage state government funding cuts. She dedicated her award to Kath Nelson, the Secretary of The Services Union, who died last month. "She was a woman full of life and passion who achieved a lot in a short period of time," Penny says.
"I've been in my current job for a really long time now, since '98, 15 years or so.
"I studied social work at UQ [University of Queensland] and I've always worked in the community sector, actually, other than a very short period of time when I first graduated, about eight weeks when I worked in a state run youth detention centre. I've always been interested in less traditional social work, more focused around social policy and social change, I suppose. The job I've got now was an attractive job because it combines the social policy work with direct service delivery.
"We were 10 quid Poms, and I was the only one in my family to go beyond grade 10, so I was very fortunate to get a university education. And I suppose, my family was pretty working class, they came from England and they didn't recognise the qualifications of my father. He did it tough trying to provide for his family and I always thought it was really unfair how hard he worked and didn't seem to ever really get ahead.
"And I guess that was kind of a motivation too – if he can work all these hours and all this time and still have trouble making ends meet, it doesn't seem like a very fair situation. So that was the kind of motivation for my work, and I suppose to some extent the motivation for my joining the union which I did as soon as I got my first job.
'I really love working in the community sector'
"I thought of being a teacher when I was younger, but when I was in Year 12 I just started looking and one day I went into the careers reference centre and social work came up, and I thought that's what I want to do. I was really fortunate to get into my first choice at UQ and I barely turned 17 when I started uni.
"You do see a lot of people struggling to find what's good for them and what they want to do, but I was really very lucky and found that thing to start with and I've just always really loved working in the community sector.
"I really love working in the community sector. It's great working alongside people to try to achieve what you think is a greater fairness and trying to understand the issues that impact on people's lives that seem to be unfair and working out how you might strategise around that.
"The Tenants Union was effectively a peak body for 22 other services around the state. We delivered services directly to tenants but also provided resources and training to smaller organisations around the state, so at the time the defunding was announced we were a relatively large community organisation and getting stronger and bigger and looking at ways to develop a network of workers that worked in other services as well.
"But now we've been reduced to one small office doing direct service delivery for tenants based in Brisbane, so back to our roots really. Our capacity has been reduced since the funding withdrawal but we're now trying to ramp it up by using volunteers and getting some legal firms on board to assist us and things like that. So hopefully it will only get better from here, not worse.
"It's very easy to take for granted what we have. The entitlements that we have that are part of everyday life . . . it was the union who were pushing to get those things."
"To get an idea of our annual case load, over the last several years it's been something like 7500 pieces of advice. An advice would be someone calling and on average would take us 20 to 25 minutes, sometimes much longer. But now, I think we're doing about a third of that. So I would expect at the end of the year if nothing changes it will be around the 2000, 2500 mark.
"We worked out somewhere around one-in-six clients are at risk of homelessness. The vast majority of our clients are in private rental, not social housing, and at the very pointy end, we're working with people to try to keep them in housing, how to save their tenancy. There might be all sorts of reasons why they're looking at losing their tenancy. They might be in rent arrears, or the owner might just be taking some retaliatory action because they've asked for repairs. There are a lot of affordability issues for households living in the private rental market.
"There's a whole range of other things we deal with as well. We try to help people get their properties better repaired, make them safer. Or getting their bond back. That's a very important issue. Bonds can be a couple of thousand dollars. Particularly if you're on a low income getting that bond back can be really important. It's already a really expensive time when you're moving house. The other thing that people get very upset about is entries, when landlords turn up unannounced or they feel like their privacy is being intruded on.
'I'm sure there's someone else that deserves it more'
"It's very satisfying work, and I think the thing that is very interesting in our sector is we've had a very high retention rate, despite not having fantastic salaries, that was before the pay equity case. Often you're working with people who are low income people, the people who don't get much of a say normally, and trying to empower them to take action themselves, or when they can't, to take action for them to assert their rights.
"I'm not really from a union family. But if you work from a rights based framework, it doesn't make sense to me not to think about your own situation and want to make sure it's fair.
"I think it's very easy to take for granted what we have. Even the level of pay in the community sector, some people grumble about it, but when I first entered the sector, there were no Awards. So the level of pay has increased because of the union. The entitlements that we have that are part of everyday life, they didn't just pop up when you think that through. It was the union, certainly not the government or industry who were pushing to get those things. In our sector as well, if you're working with people every day and letting them understand their rights and trying to empower them to exercise them, that's what you should be doing for yourself as well.
"The pay equity case was a proud moment for our sector and our union. It was a real acknowledgement of the important work of the sector. While there are very committed people in the sector who have worked in it for a long time pre- and post-pay equity, this really values their work. There were some people who found it difficult to stay in the sector even if they wanted to with children and the costs of a mortgage, and this is a really good acknowledgement of their role, particularly as the workforce is predominantly women.
"Honestly, I was shocked to get the award. I think there is a lot of very deserving people out there for an award like this, and many of them are unsung, so I feel completely honoured but I also feel a bit like, oh my gosh, I'm sure there's someone else that deserves it more."