A giant step for womankind

The undervalued work of a group of (predominantly) New Zealand women is about to be rewarded with a substantial and long-overdue pay cheque. It is likely to be the first of several.

Yesterday, details of a historic pay equity settlement were revealed by the Government. The $2billion package (over five years) will substantially increase the pay of some 55,000 state-subsidised low-paid care workers (who are mainly women) in the aged residential care, home support and disability sectors. The payments will not be backdated, but, from July, workers on the minimum hourly wage of $15.75 will get least $19, a 21% rise.

The settlement is the result of caregiver Kristine Bartlett's 2013 case to the Employment Court (it also went to the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court), which found her low hourly pay rate (then $14.32) was a result of gender discrimination under the Equal Pay Act. It reinterpreted the Act as applying to equal pay for work of equal value, not just the same pay for the same work.

Seeing the inevitable snowball effect, and wanting to keep future claims out of court, the Government set up a joint working group comprising government, business and trade union leaders to develop universally applicable pay equity principles (which, once legislation has been passed, will provide the framework for future claims). The group made its recommendations last May.

Despite being the first country to give women the vote, pay equity has been a long time coming. Recent statistics show the gender pay gap is about 12% (and 14% in the public sector).

Globally, the figure is 23%. A commitment to tackling that injustice was one of the agreed conclusions of member states at last month's United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. To highlight the issue and advance its cause, two campaigns were launched: an Equal Pay Platform of Champions and a #StopTheRobbery campaign.

Women's Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett has said closing the gender pay gap is one of her ''top priorities''. At the UN commission, Rangitata MP Jo Goodhew (on behalf of Mrs Bennett) spoke of the NZ Government's action on pay equity and that it was also encouraging the private sector to make progress.

Mrs Goodhew said: ''New Zealand is proud of its legacy of empowering women.'' Mrs Goodhew failed to mention in that forum the battle waged to get to this point - or the woman who forced the Government's hand: Kristine Bartlett. (Health Minister Jonathan Coleman - in announcing the settlement with Prime Minister Bill English yesterday - did so, however.)

The Government is now leading on the issue. It is certainly important to work with the private sector. Businesses will inevitably be worried about any flow-on effect which might cost jobs and close businesses.

Yet when some are posting healthy profits in a growth industry like aged care, it is hard to buy into the arguments. Likewise, the Government's surplus means it shouldn't be a case of robbing Peter to pay for Paula, but redistributing the wealth in a more equitable manner.

More money to women means more money to families and children (and it is likely to be money spent locally). It also means women have more chance to put money towards vital retirement savings and the like. Surely everybody wins?

The message the settlement sends about value (of women, their work and those they look after) reaches far beyond the pay packet. In the changing world of work private businesses will simply have to adapt - especially if their workers now have other options.

Although forced to act, the Government has again stolen the traditional social policy ground of Labour. Its announcement mere months away from the general election may help it cash in on its investment.

Whatever that result, the settlement remains a giant step towards giving some low-paid New Zealand women (and men) the dignity, respect and financial reward they deserve.

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