Tens of thousands of women have been given a new weapon in the fight for equal pay after a landmark court decision.
Both sides of the debate have called the Employment Court's ruling on Thursday a "significant" shift, which is likely to give unions more power to fight employers over gender discrimination.
Some employment experts say it could also pave the way for a slew of pay discrimination legal battles, particularly in female-dominated industries such as aged care, health and education.
Aged-care employers, who are in the line of fire for their low wages, are warning it could lead to the "collapse" of the largely government-funded industry.
The Employment Court has ruled women in female-dominated industries can now compare themselves to men in other industries requiring similar skills when pushing for pay equality.
Employers had argued women workers should only be compared with men in the same industry doing the same work and warned a broader view would be "unworkable".
However, the court rejected the employers' interpretation, claiming they could "simply perpetuate discrimination in rates of pay to women".
Currently industries traditionally considered "women's work" could continue to pay women poorly simply because a small group of male co-workers shared their low wages, the court said.
The ruling is part of a test case between Lower Hutt aged-care worker Kristine Bartlett, supported by the Service and Food Workers Union, and her employer TerraNova Homes and Care.
Ms Bartlett has worked in aged care for more than 20 years but is paid just $14.44 an hour, 69 cents above the minimum wage.
Yesterday, she said she was "absolutely thrilled" by the decision.
"But not just for me, it's for all the carers throughout the industry."
The ruling was only a preliminary decision in Ms Bartlett's case. She still has to prove that TerraNova paid her less because she was a woman.
But employment lawyer Susan Hornsby-Geluk said the new interpretation could have wider implications for any industry where women dominated, notably health and education.
She suggested nurses and teachers, both predominantly female professions, could be compared with police officers, to judge whether they were being fairly paid. "I think employers will feel quite concerned about this," she said.
TerraNova executive director Terry Bell said the company was still considering whether to appeal the court's decision.
The court ruling was significant and, if Ms Bartlett won the case, he had "dire concerns" about its consequences.
The aged-care sector in New Zealand employs more than 33,000 people, 92 per cent of them women. TerraNova employs 106 female and four male caregivers, paying them between $13.75 and $15 an hour.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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