Editorial: Aged care settlement an important pay equity milestone

Wellington aged care worker Kristine Bartlett brought a court case that snowballed into pay equity reform.
Nicole Johnstone

Wellington aged care worker Kristine Bartlett brought a court case that snowballed into pay equity reform.

Overnight, more than 55,000 low-paid workers have got a pay rise. Or so it seemed. The Government's $2 billion settlement with aged-care workers was the proverbial overnight success story that had been in the pipeline for years. It began when Wellington aged care worker Kristine Bartlett took a case against her employer, TerraNova, in 2012. 

Bartlett and 14 other rest home employees, all members of the Service and Food Workers' Union, appealed to the Employment Relations Authority. The union's argument was based on a view that they were not receiving equal pay as prescribed by law. The authority sent the case to the Employment Court, which supported the argument, and the Court of Appeal upheld it. Then the Government wisely opted to create a working group and reach a settlement, to avoid a potential flood of individual cases hitting the courts.

The crux of it, as the Court of Appeal determined, is that the Equal Pay Act from 1972 could apply to pay equity. The initial TerraNova case depended on a notion that some kinds of jobs are predominantly male and some, including care workers, nurses, teachers and teacher aides, are predominantly female.

Workers in the latter have historically been more poorly paid. Statistics from 2009 showed that almost half of women worked in occupations that were more than 80 per cent female. Entire categories of work have been seriously underpaid for years, according to this argument. 

The individual pay rises will be between $4 and $7 per hour for Government funded aged care workers, to take effect from June. The pay rises will be between 15 and 50 per cent, according to Health Minister Jonathan Coleman. The entire package will cost the Government $2 billion over the next four years, after the historic deal was reached with unions, including the Nurses Organisation, the PSA and E Tu, which was formed following a merger of the Service and Food Workers' Union and the Engineers Union. 

Speaking to RNZ, tax expert and Labour candidate Deborah Russell expected that a flow on effect would lead to pay rises in equivalent private sector work. There has been predictable consternation about the costs to business, so it was pleasing to see that Auckland Chamber of Commerce chief executive Michael Barnett welcomed the pay equity settlement, saying that "the many businesses that do not have a gender pay gap have no reason to be alarmed". 

Other sectors may soon follow. Teacher aides have began mediation talks with the Ministry of Education after a 10 year battle.

In a broader sense, the settlement is about more than whether women are paid the same as men. Some of the workers who benefit from the settlement are paid just $15.75, the statutory minimum wage, despite years of experience. It is about whether New Zealanders are paid enough, full stop. 

The settlement does not solve all issues that could be said to fall under the umbrella of pay equity and access to work. There are still barriers to working parents and more attention must be paid to making childcare affordable and easily accessible. Workplaces must become more family-friendly for both men and women. 


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