Alison Mau: Education support staff should be paid as much as prison guards
OPINION: It's funny how often history is made in inglorious surroundings. On Monday, three ordinary Kiwi women are hoping to do that, no-frills, in a boring meeting room in a grey and boring office block in Wellington.
The morning will start with a coffee and a muffin at the (equally boring) Headquarters of the NZEI, the union that represents principals, teachers, and early childhood education workers. The function won't be flash. The speeches will be short. And the women who will then walk a couple of hundred metres up the road to the Ministry of Business and Innovation's office block, will be nervous.
Denise Tetzlaff, Kathy Power and Mary Jones are education support workers who work one-on-one in schools and kindies with some of New Zealand's most vulnerable children. They are the first to use the Government's new pay equity mediation service to push for fair pay.
They've been waiting a long time for tomorrow's shot at a fair go. As far back as 2008, the NZEI asked the Department of Labour to have a look at pay for Education Support Workers, whom they suspected were paid badly, simply because most of them are women.
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Define badly? These workers are paid just over minimum wage when they start, fully-trained, in the classroom. Even after decades of experience at top level they earn a maximum of around $20 an hour.
I get that pay is a subjective topic. You might think my thoughts in this column are worth a buck fifty – I would disagree. But it should at least be fair.
The Department of Labour's pay equity unit agreed, and went about finding a comparable male-dominated industry to measure the case against – they decided on Corrections workers. The experts decided the two jobs were equal in skills and importance. Yet Corrections workers, mainly men, earn $8 an hour more before they even start their training; at top level they earn $9 more an hour.
In the office this week, a colleague protested; "But Corrections officers have to face angry inmates every day!"
Well, education support staff face physical and verbal abuse every day. Children who may kick, bite, swear and throw things at you. They don't have handcuffs or pepper spray. They might be working with a child who uses a feeding tube, or who is blind, can't talk, or is severely autistic. Don't tell me that's not a highly-skilled job.
Back to 2008 though. Before anything more could be done, the Pay Equity Unit was scrapped by the incoming National Government – it appeared to be the end of the line.
But in the meantime, care worker Kristine Bartlett was preparing to take the Government to the Employment Court to challenge the scope of the Equal Pay Act, which, she argued, had too narrow a definition of equal pay. Kristine won on appeal; the court could now consider whether a woman was paid less because she was doing work that had usually been done mainly by women. Same issue, different industry.
A case on behalf of Denise, Kathy and Mary was lodged quick smart, but to avoid a potentially endless string of court cases, a Government working party came up with a plan to mediate, rather than sue. The union agreed to drop their case and talk.
Tomorrow is the day the talk starts. Tomorrow the government has an opportunity to back up it's recent bold words on pay equity, and deliver.
I'll be walking with Denise, Kathy and Mary to the boring office tower tomorrow morning and I'll be hoping that when they emerge, they'll finally have been given a fair go.
FONTERRA ACTIONS 'TANTAMOUNT TO EXTORTION'
Running a small to medium-sized business is a juggle. Cash flow is the crucial factor that often means the difference between survival, and Chapter 11.
It's been more than a year since Fonterra announced they'd no longer be playing by the accepted rules. They moved their payment terms from around 30 days, to 61 days – which means some suppliers now wait three months from the time they deliver their goods or services, to payday. By March last year the howls of anguish were loud enough for the Prime Minister to get involved; John Key looked at Fonterra's 123 per cent profit surge and said the company should start paying their vendors on time.
They haven't. This week the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman named Fonterra as one of the worst offenders in a trend that "would kill SMEs." She described the practice as "tantamount to extortion."
Kate Carnell's inquiry, which may lead to a change of legislation in Australia, revealed that big businesses like Fonterra, Mars, and Kellogg's are now offering business loans to help keep those mum and dad companies afloat while they wait for their cash.
The business giants point to the "favourable rates" these loans offer. But it's still a loan, and it's only necessary because the big guys won't pay on time.
* Ali Mau is the host of RadioLIVE Drive, 3-6pm weekdays
- Sunday Star Times