By Bronwen Beechey (Tamaki Makaurau/Auckland).
The Equal Pay Act of 1972 established the principle that women workers in the private sector were entitled to the same rate as men doing the same job (public service employees had won equal pay in 1960). Forty-two years later, in October 2014, aged care worker and union member Christine Bartlett won another historic legal victory for equal pay when the Court of Appeal ruled against her employer, Terranova Homes and Care Ltd. Terranova had appealed against an Employment Court ruling that the wages paid by Terranova to its caregivers were lower than they would be if aged care was not work mainly done by women, and that such low pay breaches the Equal Pay Act.
The Appeals Court ruled that the law on equal pay was not limited to requiring equal pay for the same or similar work, and that it may be relevant to consider evidence of wages paid by other employers or in other sectors. Just before Christmas last year, the Supreme Court refused to hear another appeal by Terranova against the finding. Lawyers for the Service and Food Workers Union (SFWU) are preparing to take the case back to the employment court later this year.
Bartlett, who is touring the country speaking to nursing home employees and at public meetings about the case, told the Southland Times on April 10 that “We [care workers] feel so deeply about our job but we can’t live on love and our employers disrespect our compassion.” She said that the low wages in the industry meant that “people are suffering; they can’t pay their bills or pay for buses to work. They come to work hungry and they can’t afford to go to the doctors.”
Shortly before Bartlett’s case won, the Statistics New Zealand’s income survey for the June quarter showed women on average earned $24.70 an hour, while men were earning $28.70.
The lobby group Pay and Employment Equity Coalition said the difference of $4 an hour was equal to about 14 percent of the average wage. Spokesperson Angela McLeod told Radio NZ: “What that means in percentage terms is that women are being paid 86 percent of what men earn, and so it’s gone up.
“If you were to look at it the other way, the gap has gone from 12.7 to 13.9 percent in a year.”
The continuing gap in pay between men and women is justified by employers as an unfortunate but logical outcome of the gender -segregated nature of the workforce, and the fact that more women than men work part-time or casual hours due to lack of affordable childcare. According to Employers and Manufacturer’s Association chief executive Kim Campbell, “The harsh reality is you have, probably a preponderance of women working in things like elderly care, health care and so on, maybe where the pay is relatively low, that’s what drives these numbers.”
The fact that the wages in these sectors is “relatively low” is no accident. Because caring for the young, the sick and the elderly has traditionally been regarded as “women’s work”, its importance is devalued and employers are able to pay lower wages. In fact, these roles should be seen as vitally important and be paid accordingly.
The establishment of the Equal Pay Act and other legislation supporting the rights of women came about through a long struggle. The National Council of Women (NCW) passed its first resolution supporting equal pay in 1896, the year it was set up. In 1957, the NCW joined with the Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (BPW), Federation of University Women (FUW), Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and the Public Service Association formed the Council for Equal Pay and Opportunity (CEPO) in 1957. CEPO’s aims were ‘to bring about as soon as possible the full implementation of the principles of equal pay for equal work (or the rate for the job) and equal opportunity’. Following the winning of equal pay for public service employees with the passing of the Government Service Equal Pay Act in 1960, they took up the fight for equal pay for private sector workers. They were joined by a number of unions, despite the lack of interest in equal pay shown by the Federation of Labour (the body representing private sector unions), and the new generation of feminists organising in the Women’s Liberation movement. Groups like the Wellington and Auckland Women’s Liberation Fronts, Women For Equality and the Women’s Movement for Freedom actively campaigned, handing out leaflets at factory gates showing the wage gap, demanding that unions pay their female employees equal wages, and holding protest vigils against delays in delivering equal pay.
Following the passing of the Equal Pay Act 1972, feminists campaigned for pay equity – equal pay for women doing work with similar levels of responsibility, skill, effort or difficulty as higher-paid, male-dominated jobs – as a means of overcoming the historic undervaluing of typically female work. There was also a push to open up traditionally male-dominated industries such as construction, engineering and meat processing to women workers and apprentices. The Coalition for Equal Value, Equal Pay was set up by women’s groups and unions in 1986. The Employment Equity Act was passed in 1990, but repealed within months after the National Party came to government.
In 2009, the current National government abolished the Pay and Employment Equity plan of Action and the Pay and Employment Equity Unit that had been set up in the Department of Labour in 2004. In response, the Pay Equity Challenge Coalition was set up by unions, women’s organisations, academic and community groups. The coalition has “challenged” the National government to state what its plans are for closing the gender pay gap, in light of its removal of the Pay and Employment Equity Unit. It is this inaction by the government that forced Kristine Bartlett and the unions to take the equal pay case to court, where the government intervened on behalf of the employers arguing against the right of women to equal pay.
The struggle for equal pay and pay equity for women continues. While Kristine Bartlett’s victory is a big step forward, the pressure needs to be kept up to ensure that her struggle on behalf of low-paid women workers is successful. As Bartlett said, “I took this case, with the support of my union, not just for myself but for the tens of thousands of caregivers who get paid close to the minimum wage for doing one of the most important jobs in our society.”