OPINION: This week’s Government announcement of a $2 billion-plus negotiated equal pay settlement with unions for care and support workers is historic.
Since the New Zealand Government signed up to the International Labour Organisation Equal Remuneration Convention (ILO) in 1983 there have been many questions asked by the ILO as to whether New Zealand has taken its convention responsibilities seriously.
The Equal Remuneration Convention 1951 is one of the ILO fundamental conventions and commits every government member of the ILO to “ensure the application of the principle of equal remuneration for men and women workers for work of equal value”.
The New Zealand Government has always argued that the Equal Pay Act 1972 meets the convention requirements and it was simply up to workers to argue cases before the courts.
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In 2012 E tu, under its previous name the Service and Food Workers Union, launched an equal pay for equal value case on behalf of a senior caregiver Kristine Bartlett, who after 20 years experience was getting not much more than the minimum wage.
While Kristine’s employer tried to have the case thrown out as being “frivolous and vexatious” and the Government later joined in to also argue that the Equal Pay Act did not permit such cases, the courts took a different view of the words in the Act.
There has never been any disagreement on the skills, responsibility and degree of effort required by caregivers such as Kristine Bartlett or the workers who support people with disabilities in their own homes or in community facilities.
There have been volumes and volumes of reports done on care and support workers from the early 1980s through to the Human Rights Commission Caring Counts Report in 2012.
The significance of the Caring Counts Report was that it concluded that gender pay inequity in the care and support sector was “systemic and entrenched”, that this was a breach of human rights and that the Government could not absolve itself of responsibility for these breaches by arguing that they were not the employers.
The Caring Counts Report showed that the state funding system organised through the Ministry of Health, district health boards and ACC needed to be addressed to rectify the human rights abuses inflicted on care and support workers, and through their work on the older people and people with disabilities they were supporting.
The Government stepped up to the plate to negotiate a settlement with sector unions because it was the right thing to do.
Even though the settlement will have to be voted on by the 50,000 care and support workers affected, it contains pay increases of up to 42 per cent and introduces a system of training and qualifications that should have been introduced 25 years ago.
It is ironic that just over 25 years ago, with the introduction of the Employment Contracts Act, New Zealand abolished industry collective bargaining and doomed care and support workers to the destruction of their wage rates, allowances, leave entitlements and qualification payments.
Perhaps this settlement and the amicable way it was carried out shows it is time to look carefully at a better way of setting wages in New Zealand rather than the current individualised voluntary system that leads to discrimination and low pay.
John Ryall is the assistant national secretary for E tu.