Editorial: a blueprint for justice for women in the workplace.

Governor-General-in-waiting Dame Patsy Reddy.
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Governor-General-in-waiting Dame Patsy Reddy.

OPINION: Pay equity is about justice in the workplace. 

It requires equal pay for work of equal value, a principle that will mean hefty pay rises for those in underpaid traditional "women's work" occupations. Pay equity will mean a big bill for employers.

Now the Government has received a pay equity blueprint from a high-powered committee of representatives of employers, trade unions and officials. It recommends that pay equity be dealt with during employers and workers' pay negotiations rather than by the courts. 

It was the 2014 Court of Appeal decision in the TerraNova case, where unionists brought a case on behalf of women care workers, which upheld the principle of pay equity. But the Joint Working Group on Pay Equity Principles, chaired by Governor-General designate Dame Patsy Reddy, says leaving it to the courts is "not conducive" to good faith reconciliation of the issue.

The Government has not yet decided whether to accept the working group's recommended principles, but it should do so. If both employers and unions are ready to give this new approach a trial, they should be allowed to. After all, the Government had already said it preferred a solution that could be supported by both sides.

Also, Reddy clearly has the respect of the Government, not only as its choice for governor-general, but also for the work she and Sir Michael Cullen did in their report on the intelligence services. Rejecting her report would be a drastic step.

It's true that this approach is a gamble. It leans heavily on the good faith bargaining requirements of the industrial legislation, and  assumes that the sides will be able to reach a reasonable conclusion. But it also provides a backstop in the Employment Relations Authority, which can help mediate and facilitate negotiations but also make final decisions, including about pay, when the sides can't agree. So while there are carrots along the way, a big stick is available when mediation and negotiation do not work.

Pay equity requires a detailed comparison of the work performed by women and those in another occupation. If the levels of skill, responsibility, effort and other matters are comparable but the pay rates markedly different, there is clearly a case for increasing women workers' pay.

This is where expert work is required, and where disputes become complex. The working party clearly hints that the Government should provide help here, both in increasing the expertise of the authority and in training experts. It also acknowledges that the working group has not been able to agree how far its recommended principles help identify the right comparators.

So there are doubts about exactly how this new mechanism will work in practice. But the Government must take a small gamble and back it. Negotiation is better than litigation.

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Finally, the working party says the Government can help lead the way as the country's largest employer. In particular it is the primary funder in the aged care industry. Increasing the pay of carers will be expensive: estimates of its cost range as high as $500 million. But that is the price of justice in the workforce.

 - Stuff

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