Equal Pay Shenanigans

Prue Hyman

Pay equity for women – what is the government up to?

By Prue Hyman

Two months back I mentioned that we were waiting for an offer from government to settle the Kristine Bartlett/ Terranova pay equity case.

After five years we finally heard there was a reasonably decent possible settlement.

But there’s been no attempt to value the work in a systematic way  — this would have led to a much bigger increase!

What the settlement does

The settlement does at least guarantee hourly wages of $19 to $23.50 to carers across a number of workplaces, up by $4 or more – and there are improved training opportunities.

It has been greeted with rapture generally and certainly is of huge importance to this undervalued workforce, many of whom have

Kristine Bartlett

been getting only just more than the minimum wage. I congratulate all those who’ve worked so hard for 150 years or so on these issues – including Kristine Bartlett, the face of the campaign for 5 years or so over the period of the case.

For the 55,000 workers, almost all women, who will get a significant and totally justified increase in their pay assuming the agreement is ratified, it is really important. But I find it hard to be thrilled by even $23.50 per hour when consultants charge several hundreds and CEOs ‘earn’ in the millions per year.

But it’s not really equal pay

And the settlement is not real equal pay for work of equal value. As I said in the introduction, there’s been no attempt to value the work in a systematic way. That would have led to a much bigger increase.

It is in fact more pay parity with public sector workers in similar jobs, rather than true pay equity – all such care workers are worth more.

It has been reached through tough tripartite bargaining and I suspect that the government agreed to it partly because they think it looks good in election year and partly because they suspect the Court process would have resulted in a bigger increase. For the unions it is a success and given their limited resources, they have done well.

New Employment Bill for consultation

But immediately after the offer came out, the government sent out for consultation draft legislation, the Employment (Pay Equity and Equal Pay) Bill. Many of us with long experience in this area had hoped for something very different.

Parallel with the negotiations over care work, another tripartite working group involving unions, employers and the government had come up with a set of principles by which other pay equity claims could be lodged.

Principles were agreed and they were fairly harmless over procedures to follow and not contradictory to the Equal Pay Act, developing the process more through collective bargaining. Attaching these as an annex to the Act would have been sufficient.

‘Lowering the drawbridge ‘on others

However, the draft Bill starts from scratch with a convoluted set of processes that would make taking a claim very hard for unions and almost impossible for an individual, even if she knew what relevant males in her workplace and beyond were paid. It is like lowering the drawbridge on all the other undervalued groups of women workers after allowing the carers through.

Bill English is playing political games

The writing was on the wall when the Prime Minister talked about the uniqueness of the carers’ case and the high hurdles for other groups. We all know how many other female dominated undervalued sectors there are.

The National Party is pretending that the draft legislation is workable despite being aware it has a large number of probably insurmountable obstacles even for unionised groups, let alone possible individual claimants.

It involves first the claimants establishing merit for the claim with a long list of criteria, then selecting comparators, then investigating the value of the work of the groups involved in terms of skills, responsibilities, effort, service, and working conditions.

Obstructive bosses could delay process for years

At each stage the employer can be obstructive – and mediators, facilitation and in extremis appeal to the Employment Relations Authority invoked. An obstructive employer could draw the process up for years. And there are limits to back pay, giving further incentives to employers to delay.

With the government having changed one recommendation of the Working Party to insist on a ‘hierarchy of comparators’ the process is further worsened.

This hierarchy involves preference for comparisons within the workforce of the same employer. This is unfortunate as there will often be none available who are not themselves female dominated and/or affected by the gender bias and undervaluation of the claimant group.

If none such is available, the next preference in the Bill is in the same industry or sector with only the chance to move outside if it is established that none exist within the industry. Again bad employers will be able to obstruct the process. Comparing female and male dominated work for overall value is at the heart of equal pay for work of equal value.

‘Unprecedented transitional arrangements’

And to cap it all, under unprecedented transitional arrangements, claims already lodged under the Equal Pay Act would be transferred to this new untried process, with the prospect of endless time and litigation – interpretation of a very wordy Act could be a field day for lawyers.

It’s hard enough even under the current Act without goodwill on all sides. Since the abolition of awards, the reduction of collective bargaining, and increased concern for privacy, it is very hard for claimant groups or individuals even to know what others are paid.

Green MP Jan Logie

The Bill’s provisions on this are minimal. Green MP Jan Logie is introducing this week a private member’s bill which would improve somewhat the provision of earnings information by sex – it deserves wide support.
In the consultation on the current Bill, unions and women’s organisations are putting in submissions analyzing in detail its inadequacies. Women’s groups have had limited chance to be involved in the whole process – given that only just over 20% of women workers are unionized, it is essential that they be heard, however well the unions try to look after all workers. The National government needs to think again on this Bill.