Warm fuzzy aftermath hides cold hard truth

Now I am used to the drill, I like to get in first.

''I'm a cheat,'' I say before the lycra-laden luvvies can accuse me.

''I'm riding an electric bike.

''I don't have it on full power unless I am going up a hill. Real cyclists still overtake me,'' I dribble on apologetically.

Push me and I will tell you my bike is heavy, so I am getting a workout. How else would I have developed thigh muscles like cream cans (as my father would have said) and shed a couple of kilograms?

I'm too polite to ask them how often they swap the lycra for the warm confines of the car on their daily commute.

My supercilious self wants to tell them biking to work could be dramatically cutting my risk of developing cancer or heart disease, compared with an inactive commute, according to a big study recently published by the University of Glasgow.

Heck, I might even live long enough to see New Zealand women workers treated as well as their male counterparts.

Yeah, right.

Last week's announcement of the Government's $2 billion pay equity agreement, which will mean substantial pay increases from the middle of this year for 55,000 care and support workers, was welcome news.

While the Government was crowing about its largesse, it somehow overlooked the fact it was a reluctant starter on this, no doubt spending big money on lawyers' fees fighting the original 2012 case brought by care worker Kristine Bartlett and the then Service and Food Workers Union ( now part of Etu).

Full marks to the tenacity of Kristine and that union, ably led by my old journalism classmate John Ryall, and represented by lawyer Peter Cranney, for using the courts to get movement on some important issues facing low-paid workers. (Another earlier win involved ensuring workers were paid properly for sleepover shifts.)

The rosy glow surrounding the latest settlement has been so ubiquitous, for a few days we might have overlooked the many other issues which plague low-paid workers, who may or may not be women.

How many part-time workers, some of whom will be paid by organisations getting Government funding, are subjected to questionable employment practices? How many of these workers, much like the care workers, put up with poor conditions and pay because they believe there is no fat in the system and they value the work they are doing?

Are employers using 90-day trials and fixed term agreements properly? How many part-time employees still have precarious hours in jobs where they are expected to do more work than they are actually paid for? And, if you are a part-time worker in a non-union workplace ( as most workplaces are), what hope do you have of getting comprehensive representation you can afford?

How many workers in non-union workplaces understand agreements they are offered and have the confidence to question their suitability? How many are brave enough to challenge what might be contained in their one-size-fits-all-take-it-or-leave-it ''individual'' agreement, even if they suspect it is not right?

Twice in recent years, organisations offering me work, acting on advice they had paid for, thought it was OK to give me a casual employment agreement to consider, when it was clear the work was not truly casual. Both agreements contained clauses which were not relevant to the jobs.

While we were still in the warm fuzzy aftermath of the pay equity deal, the Government released the draft Employment (Pay Equity and Equal Pay) Bill supposedly designed to provide a practical and fair process for employees to follow if they consider their pay and conditions are affected by gender discrimination.

Already, this is rightly drawing criticism from the union movement because the process for finding a comparator occupation to assess a pay equity claim is plain silly. It wants those making a claim in the first instance to seek a comparator within their own employer's business, or a similar business if that is not possible, and only go to a different industry or sector if no appropriate comparators exist.

Why be prescriptive about this? Is the worry that teacher aides (to choose a previous occupation of mine) might want to be compared with male escorts or something similarly preposterous? Couldn't it be left up to the parties to negotiate as they did in the Kristine Bartlett case?

The Bill would give any employee, or group of employees, the right to make a claim. This might sound good, but how hard would it be for any individual in a large or small non-union workplace to do this?

Who knows how willing the Government will be to make changes to the draft Bill? If it remains as it is, women will have reason to feel cheated, again.

-Elspeth McLean is a Dunedin writer.

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