Editorial: Justice for women in the workplace will cost, but it is welcome.

Prime Minister Bill English foreshadows changes to "better control" immigration.

Prime Minister Bill English foreshadows changes to "better control" immigration.

Fixing the gender pay gap will cost a lot of money both in government and in business. Yesterday Prime Minister Bill English revealed that hefty pay increases for mainly female low-paid rest-home and elder care workers will cost it $2 billion over four years.

In this the Government is clearly conflicted. On the one hand it wants to take some of the credit for pay increases to workers who at present earn little more than the minimum wage. Health Minister Jonathan Coleman announced the details with a certain pride, as though the Government hadn't fought hard in the courts to head off the case of rest home worker Kristine Bartlett.

At the same time the Government was trying to downplay the fiscal effects. English said other women workers will also bring suits but that the hurdles will be "high". Coleman was at pains to argue that the Bartlett case does not set a precedent for other occupations.

The ministers can bluster as much as they like. The Bartlett case not only sets a stunning precedent that other women workers will be keen to pursue. It has also led to a change which allows women to bring claims against employers and sets up a system for the claims to be systematically investigated.

This is quite simply a  huge change in New Zealand's approach to wage setting, and nobody knows where it will lead.

The 55,000 workers affected by the Bartlett case will get pay rises of between 15 and 50 per cent. They have waited a long time for justice, and they didn't get it without a fight. The union case went to the Supreme Court, at which point the Government decided it was better to try and manage the process rather than simply leave future cases to be decided by judges.

Other claims are already beginning. Last week education support workers began talks.

The Bartlett pay rise will be funded partly by an increase in the health vote, and partly through ACC. Coleman says it might lead to higher ACC premiums, but this is not certain. Some rest home patients will face higher fees.

Pay equity claims now loom in the private sector. Enlightened business leaders have accepted the principle of pay equity, but less far-sighted managers might well  balk at the bill.

Supporters of the Bartlett case point out that higher wages should reduce the rapid turnover of staff in rest-homes. As former Human Rights commissioner Judy McGregor said when she did undercover work in a resthome, these workers are almost modern-day slaves, often underpaid and grossly overworked.

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So there will be benefits to employers of pay equity claims, although there is also much uncertainty.

The movement, however, is clearly building in momentum. Green MP Jan Logie's member's bill, for instance, would require companies to publish their pay rates for men and women. This approach, which mirrors similar legislation in Britain, would mean greater transparency in an area which has been notoriously murky.

Greater  justice in the workplace for women is unsettling for some and it will cost plenty. But it is wholly welcome.

 - Stuff


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