Low-paid female caregivers and their unions are celebrating a historic Employment Court decision that rules they must be paid at the same rate as men.
The outcome is being hailed as the greatest advance for the rights of working women since the passing of the Equal Pay Act in 1972.
Jubilant union leaders from the Service and Food Workers Union and Council of Trade Unions say the decision will be celebrated by caregivers and other low-paid female workers throughout New Zealand. The case was taken to the Employment Court by caregiver and SFWU member Kristine Bartlett of Lower Hutt.
Ms Bartlett argued that her very low pay was a result of gender discrimination, under the Equal Pay Act.
"Kristine's case showed that her pay rate of $14.32 an hour, after over 20 years of caregiving for the elderly, was based on her gender rather than her skills, effort and responsibility," SFWU national secretary John Ryall said.
A bench of three Employment Court judges found the union correctly interpreted the Equal Pay Act to mean that large occupational groups of women workers, such as caregivers, should receive a rate of pay equal to what would paid if that occupational group were male-dominated.
New Plymouth rest home worker Mavis Pearce, paid slightly more than the minimum wage despite working in resthomes for 20 years, was delighted.
"We will get what we are worth," she said. She had continued to work in the industry because she loved the work.
"You don't go for the money, you go for the residents. They are like part of the family."
SFWU Taranaki organiser Sam Jones said the win ticked one of the 10 recommendations outlined in the Human Rights Commission's Caring Counts document.
"It's huge for working women in New Zealand. Caregivers have been undervalued and discriminated against for years and years."
Mr Jones was hopeful there would be no appeal, as there had in the IHC sleepover case.
The six years of the appeal process meant the employer was also left with a large backpay bill.
The industry supported the principle that their workers were underpaid in home support and residential healthcare, Mr Jones said.
"This is a hard-won and historic victory that offers hope for low-paid women at last. For far too long "women's work" has been undervalued and underpaid," Mr Ryall said.
"The court has recognised that caregivers are paid abysmally low pay rates because they are women and has dismissed Business New Zealand arguments about the cost of removing pay discrimination as akin to the economic arguments against removing slavery.
"This day will be remembered as turning point . . ." he said.
The major step forward established that the Equal Pay Act - around for 40 years - provided the legal argument for an end to low wages in occupations simply because they were women's jobs.
"But this is just the first step. Now we need to do the work on identifying a comparable role, in terms of skills, responsibility and effort. This will be tough, as caregiving is highly skilled and demanding work."
Mr Ryall said that the SFWU was keen to engage in a process with the aged-care employers and the Government funders, under the umbrella of the court to set a fair rate of pay for caregivers.
"Thousands of caregivers across New Zealand will now be invited to join the Equal Pay case and the growing group representing caregivers, providers, human-rights advocates and spokespeople for the elderly will call on government to acknowledge the disgracefully low pay rates in caregiving and provide the funding to fix this now."
Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly said the result was a giant step forward for the rights of working women.
"This finding shows that for far too long ‘women's work' has been undervalued and underpaid."
Caregiving was hard physical and emotional work, and of which society expected extremely high standards, yet caregivers' wages were still low and on average about $10 below the average hourly wage rate.
More than 90 per cent of the caregiver workforce was women, Ms Kelly said.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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