Test case for gender pay equity

MARIA SLADE
Last updated 05:00 31/07/2013
Rest home caregiver Kristine Bartlett
CRAIG SIMCOX/Fairfax NZ
JUST ABOVE MINIMUM WAGE: For 19 years, Kristine Bartlett has worked as a caregiver at Riverleigh Rest Home in Lower Hutt, and is still paid only $14.46 an hour.

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A Lower Hutt caregiver has become a heroine in the fight for gender pay equity in New Zealand.

Unionists and employers alike are anxiously waiting for the Employment Court's decision in Kristine Bartlett v Terranova Homes, due any day.

Last month, the court heard Bartlett's claim that the $14.46 an hour her rest-home employer pays her is less than a man with similar skills and responsibilities would earn.

If she is successful, it will be the first time the 1972 Equal Pay Act has been interpreted as applying to equal pay for work of equal value.

Bartlett does not allege that she and her 109 female co-workers at Terranova's five rest homes are paid less than their six male counterparts. Rather, she is arguing that her pay is less than she would receive if she were working in a male-dominated industry.

"It really is potentially just such a historic case," says Green MP Jan Logie.

It has been four decades since paying people differently based on their sex was outlawed, and yet the gap between men's and women's earnings stubbornly persists.

The extent of the gap depends on which set of figures you use.

Unions tend to prefer the Quarterly Employment Survey, which is based on total wage bill figures supplied by employers. It shows that in March 2013 a man's average total hourly earnings were $29.28, compared with a woman's of $25.37, a difference of about 13 per cent. It has hovered at around this level for the past few years.

However, the Ministry of Women's Affairs and the Human Rights Commission (HRC) rely on the annual New Zealand Income Survey, a subset of the Household Labour Force Survey which looks at individuals.

The latest survey last year found that the median hourly earnings for a man were $22, compared with $19.95 for a woman - a gap of 9.3 per cent.

These results show the gap has narrowed. In June 2008 men's median hourly earnings were $20, compared with women on $17.44, a difference of 15 per cent.

The 1972 act made a big difference to women's pay, but since then the pace of change has been glacial.

Judy McGregor, head of AUT's school of social sciences and a former human rights commissioner, says the battle needs to be fought on a variety of fronts, including progressive improvements in the minimum wage, because women are over-represented in the ranks of the lowly paid.

"If you were to take the overall gender pay gap it is mostly influenced not by the couple of hundred women in the professions, but by the big numbers at the bottom - the three Cs as we used to call them, cleaning, caring and clerical," she says.

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But "effective legislation that is not just based on non-discrimination, but has a positive duty [requirement]" is also key, McGregor says.

To this end, the HRC has made a submission on the Employment Relations Amendment Bill now before Parliament, arguing that the public service's good employer requirements be extended to private sector.

This would mean employers must have an equal employment opportunities programme. The HRC is proposing guidance from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to help smaller companies comply.

Asked about her chances of getting it included, current commissioner Jackie Blue says the bill is being seen as weakening union power and the Government may "see reason" over balancing that out.

Veteran feminist academic Prue Hyman says the short-lived 1990 Employment Equity Act did provide mechanisms for testing work of equal value, but since then the industrial relations landscape has changed dramatically.

"It meant that it was virtually impossible to conceive of a legislative framework that was anything like the Employment Equity Act that could produce actual equal pay for work of equal value. So we concentrated on other things."

This includes campaigns to improve the minimum wage and to introduce a living wage, because these would, by association, improve the lot of women, she says.

It is possible to achieve better female pay under ordinary industrial relations structures, as nurses and midwives managed to do, "but you've got to win in collective bargaining and that's very hard to do", Hyman says.

However, while lack of bargaining power and female-dominated industries may dog the lower-paid, the gender pay gap is hardly confined to their ranks. McGregor points to the state sector, where pay gaps remain "horrendous".

The HRC's 2012 Census of Women's Participation report shows an average gender pay gap of 14.3 per cent in the public service, with the Ministry of Defence having the biggest gap at 42 per cent, and the Department of Corrections having the smallest at 2.77 per cent.

Jo Cribb, chief executive of the Ministry of Women's Affairs, says there is no one cause of the gender pay gap. One obvious factor is what it calls occupational and vertical segregation, where men work in different occupations, and within the same occupation at different levels.

The other is the fact that women take time out if they have children and return to work part-time, and at lower levels.

"We've also found firm size matters," Cribb says. "Men tend to work in very large firms, and women [are] working in smaller firms. So that can contribute to ability to be promoted and opportunities."

But then there are the "straight-out unexplained" factors, she says, such as unconscious bias against women when hiring and promoting.

By international standards New Zealand's gender pay gap is not severe.

OECD figures for 2010 show we have the second smallest gap behind Hungary on 6 per cent, and ahead of the US and UK with gaps of around 17 per cent.

Work in progress

The Ministry of Womens' affairs has several key pieces of work coming up aimed at improving the earning potential of and opportunities for women in the workforce.

1. One involves work around the Canterbury rebuild, understanding where the untapped potential is for women to be involved.

"We're just in the process of doing some research, so we really understand what the pool of women who are available looks like, and then we're working very closely with employers... so that we can do better matching around that."

2. Another project is encouraging women into growing sectors such as science, engineering and logistics where they are under-represented. "The economy needs them... but they're also good well paid jobs and have career prospects," she says.

3. It's also working with Philanthropy New Zealand and businesses on how to develop low skilled, low wage women.

4. And it has a project in the wings to better understand unconscious bias, particularly around senior management and board apppointments. It's working with major organisations about how they're unpicking unconscious bias within their own ranks.

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- BusinessDay.co.nz

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