National Portrait: Kristine Bartlett, equal pay campaigner

ROSS GIBLIN/Dominion Post

After years of struggle, Lower Hutt aged care worker, Kristine Bartlett reflects on the landmark decision by Government to give pay equity to about 55,000 of her low paid, mainly female colleagues.

"Your shout," Kristine Bartlett's son Graham declared when he called to congratulate her. Her daughter Connie cried.

In post-announcement interviews, Bartlett couldn't help tearing up herself.

But don't call her a hero. The rest-home carer of 24 years only fronted the protracted court case that led to Tuesday's $2 billion, game-changing equal pay settlement. The real heros, she insists, are the E tu union workers who toiled tirelessly to pave a path for other female-dominated industries to challenge their wage rates on the basis they would be paid more if their workforce were dominated by men.

"It's not about me," Bartlett says.

And yet it is. Because it's this unassuming Lower Hutt 68-year-old's name that will go down in history as the woman who kick-started a stagnant campaign to get women a fairer pay deal. And in many ways, her whole uncompromising, unconventional life has brought her here.

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Kristine Bartlett says the success of the equal pay case she fronted was "not about me", but a reflection of the hard work by many union staff behind the scenes. PHOTO: ROB KITCHIN/FAIRFAX NZ

It's five years, three court cases, two appeals and one life-changing pay settlement since Bartlett was summoned to her union's office after work. Did she want to front an equal pay court case against her employer, TerraNova Homes, they asked. When she realised the case's implications she didn't hesitate to say yes. A couple of months later she had her first interview and it's barely stopped since.

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Bartlett isn't sure why the union chose her. But she thinks it's because she'd been working for so long as a carer (19 years) and was still on such a low wage ($14.46 an hour).

But there's more to it than that. Slight and sweet, with one of those faces that smiles from every crease, Bartlett looks like she could be a pushover. But she is not given to simply accepting her lot.

Education support workers, including Mary Jones from Masterton (centre) and Kathy Power, from Christchurch (left), have taken up Bartlett's equal pay fight in their own industry. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

She tells a story, from the time she ran the lounge bar at Taita Hotel, at 19. Her boss asked her to help at the public bar, where the blokes came to drink and run down their wives. The barman was not grateful. You can't lift those flagons, he said.

"I said, 'Oh yes I can'. I stayed there and I did exactly the same work he was doing. But he didn't like it. He caused such a stink. I'll never forget that day."

Bartlett didn't like being told what she could and couldn't do. She figures that's probably also why she went through three husbands, juggling three jobs to bring up her three children at a time when solo mothers lost friends and gained snide behind-the-back remarks. She preferred challenge to compromise.

"In my heart I always think – why be in a marriage or relationship if you're not happy? Because it just causes an atmosphere and it's not good for the kids.

"A lot of people say you're so strong, and I'm so blessed for being so strong. I could have ended up who knows where. Yeah it was tough, but you can't feel sorry for yourself. You get in these situations, you've got to get yourself out of it. You throw it over your shoulder and carry on. When you've got a family, you've got to do that."

Now 68, Bartlett plans to keep working to make the most of her pay rise. PHOTO: ROB KITCHIN/FAIRFAX NZ

Bartlett's pay will rise from $16.23 to $23.50 as a result of Tuesday's historic settlement, which resets rest-home carers' pay based on what a similarly skilled man would earn in a male-dominated industry.

After a lifetime of frugality, Bartlett hasn't decided what to splash her cash on. She'll do her usual –  think of something, then wait a month to decide if she really needs it.

Having been a single mum in an age without benefits, and having been brought up by one, she knows the meaning of struggle. Her father Ronald died of a brain tumour when she was 12. Three of the kids had already left home, leaving the three "little ones". Her Mum Jeannie went to work – for Hannahs, then as a supervisor for a hospital cleaning company.

Looking back, Bartlett wonders "How the heng did she manage?"

While Bartlett has spent the past 24 years caring for people at the end of their lives, her first job was at the other end of the spectrum, working after school and weekends cleaning the Hutt Hospital maternity ward.

With her first pay, she bought a sewing machine and taught herself to sew her own clothes. She was an ace at typing, so her teacher offered to pay for her to attend a Chamber of Commerce course. Her mother wouldn't accept charity.

She tried a battery of jobs – office work, branch orderer at Woolworths (she turned down the cashier's job because the idea of walking to the bank with a briefcase full of money handcuffed to her wrist terrified her). She loved the "public relations" side of bar work, but was back cleaning when she fell into the work that would become her vocation.

It was 1993 and the motel she was cleaning was converted into a rest home. She started as housekeeper, but loved interacting with the old people, so trained to be a carer instead.

"I've never looked back. I just absolutely adored it."

As she cleans up their incontinent mess – while assuring them it happens to her too – they tell her their stories. How they went to war. How they lost husbands to war. How their husbands beat or abused them but they couldn't make money so couldn't leave. How they love her. How they want to die.

"I have been asked to do it: 'I've had enough, give me something'. I say 'Darling, when God's ready, he'll take you. I can't do anything'."

A small silver cross hangs around Bartlett's neck. She has faith, but is torn over euthanasia. She sees the suffering of both the dying and their families and thinks it should be an option.

"I think if you work where I work, if that's what the person wants, if she's 89 or 92 and she's dying of terminal cancer, or whatever. That's her right."

Her own mother spent her last days in Bartlett's Riverleigh Rest Home, under her daughter's watchful eye. Many are not so lucky, abandoned by family until the end.

"They've got people, but nobody comes to visit. The thing is, when they get sick and the next of kin have got to be informed, they come running. I've seen a lot of that happen over the years. Really and truly, it's terrible. It really is disgusting."

Bartlett sees her job as "Give, give, give. Make every moment of their day as happy as you can."

She still works 30 hours a week and has no plans to give up any time soon. Those smiling eyes dance.

"Hey, I've just got the best pay rise, I'm not going to walk away from it!"

 - Stuff

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