Hope 'low-paid trap' will be blown open

The aged care sector awaits the outcome of a test case that could declare carer wages discriminatory. Health reporter Eileen Goodwin looks at the issue.

Her pay rate of $16.49 an hour makes caregiver Ange Wilson highly paid, at least compared with others in her profession.

She holds a senior qualification.

Her Dunedin employer did not want to be identified, but is respected for recognising qualifications with more pay. With nearly nine years' experience, the 52-year-old is qualified as a level-three carer.

She still earns a couple of dollars less an hour than her counterparts in the district health board sector. This anomaly was sharply criticised by the Human Rights Commission's Caring Counts report last year.

The commission's advocacy was seen to lay the groundwork for a landmark case in the Auckland Employment Court last month arguing caregiver wages were gender discrimination. The case has been called potentially catastrophic by the New Zealand Aged Care Association.

The Service and Food Workers Union argues caregiver Kristine Bartlett's $14.32 hourly rate is set low because caregiving is a female-dominated sector.

It comes as concern builds over New Zealand's level of income and asset inequality, and the Living Wage campaign signs up the likes of the Warehouse Group to phase in paying workers $18.40 an hour.

Service and Food Workers Union national secretary John Ryall, who is awaiting the court's decision, hopes it breaks open the ''low-paid trap'' ensnaring workers.

He has the Government in his sights; he does not believe the industry is profiteering.

The case should pave the way for three-way talks between the Government, providers and unions, he said.

The union pursued the fairness litigation and other strategies because workers had little wage-bargaining power.

The ramifications went beyond aged care. If it set a precedent, the case could affect the disability sector.

Last year's Caring Counts report was the ''turning point'' that transformed the issue into one of human rights, he said. Former Equal Employment Opportunities commissioner Judy McGregor said the report she authored was one of only three instances the commission's phones jammed with callers during her decade there. The other hot-button issues were controversial comments by politician Hone Harawira, and broadcaster Paul Henry.

The ''astonishing'' reaction to Caring Counts was a catalyst for what she saw as the first major test of the Equal Pay Act in 30 years.

''[Caregivers have] come into the public arena in a way in which they haven't for the last 100 years probably. They've stood up for themselves.''

By highlighting the pay gap between district health board and outsourced carers, Caring Counts dovetailed ''beautifully'' with the Living Wage campaign. Prof McGregor is urging voters in this year's district health board elections to ask candidates if they supported the caregivers' case.

She did not accept DHBs had no responsibility because the contracts were outsourced. An equal pay argument was used by the Government to justify upping pay for Mighty River Power directors by 73% when the power company was floated, and yet the same argument was rejected from carers, Prof McGregor said.

The Government's position is that to consider lifting funding to the level required for wages to rise, it must be in budget surplus. While it was ''jolly tough'' for carers, that position had not changed, Associate Health Minister Jo Goodhew said in an interview this week.

Asked if she could live on $14.32 an hour, she said: ''I think it would be challenging. And I know it is challenging for those that do.''

Higher standards in the aged care sector had led to a big increase in workers gaining qualifications, she said. Asked whether that made up for low pay, she said at least it gave workers higher skills, a career path and a sense of satisfaction.

Asked about income inequality, she said: ''Rather than spending all of the day bleating on about how big the [wealth] gap is, [the Government is] looking at what's happening for those people, and trying to assist them, so they can actually lead healthier, more highly educated lives, have jobs and be better off.''

''If we spend a heap of time talking about how big the gap is, as opposed to addressing those that are in the lowest socioeconomic groups, and how they can lift themselves out of that, then I think we ignore getting on with action.''

The Government helped those on low incomes with various initiatives, Mrs Goodhew said.

The sector itself was seeing investment, she said, citing 18 new facilities that had opened since 2008, and 50 that had expanded. It was a matter for those ''individual private businesses'', some of which were in expansion mode, to decide whether to use funding increases to lift wages.

New Zealand Aged Care Association chief executive Martin Taylor said his organisation picked up on the inequality between the public and private sector years ago, ''way before'' the unions did.

It was a frustrating situation in which no-one was winning.

He believed the public-private split was still the real issue, not gender discrimination.

He fears the outcome of Ms Bartlett's case, saying it might lift wages, but the sector would go through huge pain and upheaval first. ''If you had to increase the wages to a living wage, every aged care facility would probably be insolvent.

''If Ms Bartlett succeeded, the impact on the sector could be catastrophic,'' he said.

The association disagrees with the Government over the financial health of the sector, Mr Taylor dismissing Mrs Goodhew's remarks about new facilities opening as ''wonderful spin''.

Not one of the 18 facilities opened since 2008 was stand-alone. Retirement villages were subsidising other facilities, he said.

Since 2008, 42 facilities had closed, he said.

Southern DHB chief executive Carole Heatly said the board did not have a position on the Living Wage campaign, but expected carers to be paid a wage that reflected their work.

Living Wage movement
• $18.40 an hour (about two-thirds the average New Zealand wage).
• Considered the minimum necessary to survive and participate in society.
• The top 1% of Kiwi earners have more wealth than the bottom 60%.
• Launched last year, the Living Wage Aotearoa New Zealand movement brings together community organisations and unions to advocate for the Living Wage.

- eileen.goodwin@odt.co.nz

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