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Letter from Elsewhere: Nats Nix Pay Equity

Anne Else's Letter from Elsewhere

Return to Form: Nats Nix Pay Equity

18 May 2009

The National party has just proved that it has not changed with the times, and that those who don’t understand history (in this case, employed women who voted National) are doomed to repeat it.

John Key went in for lots of splashy femwashing during the election campaign, to reassure women voters about National’s intentions. But now the Nats have once again taken the axe to vital work on getting women equal pay for work of equal value – that is, pay equity - just as they did back in 1990.

No one should have been surprised. In 2008, the Women’s Studies Association surveyed political parties on a range of issues. The very first question was about policy on pay equity. National’s evasive, patronising reply made no sense:

National is a Party that wants to lift the wages of all workers irrespective of gender or occupation. It is interesting to note that the pay gender gap has not budged under the Labour Government. It is true that women tend to be clustered in low paid occupations and that is why National will have policies that support economic growth and education. Lifting wages will mean women will be better able to save in retirement, will have more money to raise children, repay student debt, and have more disposable income which ultimately will give them greater choice. Economic growth means that as a wealthier country we can do more for our citizens and will be able to afford the best medicines, afford good health care, social and education services and pay for things like the extension of paid parental leave.

In 1990 the new National Government repealed the Labour Government's Employment Equity Act because we were concerned it was flawed and established a Working Party on Equity in Employment. On its recommendation, the Equal Employment Opportunities (EEO) Trust was established in 1991 to promote the business benefits of equal employment opportunities to all employers.

The Labour Government has tried a range of bureaucratic mechanisms aimed at pay equity without success. National believes anti discrimination legislation is still the most effective tool to secure equal pay for equal work.

In February 2009, National canned two investigations into pay equity. One focused on Child, Youth and Family social workers. Four out of five of them are women. The results of the investigation would have indicated the level at which this kind of work within CYF should be valued, to serve as a basis for negotiating a fair and appropriate rate for the job.

The Minister for State Services said then that the outcome of the pay investigation was likely to ‘generate an additional form of remunerative pressure’. In other words, it was likely to show that a job done mainly by women was underpaid for the levels of skill and responsibility involved, when it was compared with jobs of similar levels done mainly by men. But the government didn’t want to know that, because then it would come under pressure to pay social workers more. So, in a staggering inversion of logic, this became a good reason to stop the investigation.

As Anthea Raven pointed out recently in the Women’s Studies Newsletter, this decision was extremely short-sighted, because it was “likely to have an effect on the already low rates of recruitment and retention of qualified, skilled and experienced Social Workers. Approximately 42 per cent of degree qualified Social Workers move out of the occupation. The CYF turnover rate within the first 2 - 4 years of tenure is 30 percent for each two year period. Combined with a drop in the rate of graduating Social Workers and with a growth in demand over the past 10 years, as government funding has also increased across a wider range of services, shortages are likely to persist.”

In fact they’re likely to get much worse, at a time when the recession is bound to increase the demand. The Ministry of Social Development has just disestablished professional service roles in CYF (including Raven’s own job), thereby loading more work onto the front line of social workers. Such a cunning plan - they’ll be far too overworked to complain about not getting pay equity, heh heh.

Now the Nats have gone for broke. Why muck around stopping pay investigations here and there when you can just get rid of the whole damn unit? No more dangerous work on how to compare jobs fairly. No more awkward comparisons pointing straight to a higher public service wage bill. Just a few empty platitudes from the Minister of Labour (a woman! so there!) about how achieving the goal of closing the gender wage gap “can't be realised by having a singular focus on the state sector”. And it’s only seven jobs, anyway. So no problem.

No need for the Minister of Women’s Affairs to say anything at all. As she admitted in the House, she wasn’t consulted about the investigations being stopped. So it’s odds-on that no one bothered to consult her about the pay and employment equity unit being axed either. Currently she’s claiming the Ministry of Women’s Affairs will fill the gap.

Meanwhile the National Council of Women, ever optimistic (well, it has to be, considering that it’s been working for pay equity since 1867), is taking National at its word (legislation is the answer, see above), and saying this is “a chance to put forward to cabinet the legislative changes that are needed”. But they really shouldn’t hold their breath.

National has made it perfectly clear, yet again, that they’re totally opposed to doing anything concrete about pay equity, because it would mean – gasp! – paying lots of women (and some men) more. That’s what closing the wage gap means.

Actually, that’s not quite true. It can close because men get paid less. The main reason for the small narrowing of the wage gap in recent years was the downward slide in wages for jobs where men cluster. This is likely to happen again, as building and manufacturing are hard hit.

The Nats probably know this, and are well aware that if private sector jobs and wages are going down, they will be able to get away with low public sector wages in those frontline jobs where women cluster.

Two years ago the UN committee reviewing how well we’ve done in eliminating discrimination against women told the government:

The Committee expresses concern that while New Zealand law recognizes the principle of equal pay for work of equal value, the mechanisms for implementing this principle in the private sector, such as industry-wide job evaluations to ensure equal pay for women performing work of equal value, have been abolished and the Government lacks the authority to implement and enforce equal employment opportunity policies in the private sector…The Committee recommends that the State party enact and implement comprehensive laws guaranteeing the substantive equality of women with men in both the public and private sectors, especially in regard to equal pay and equal opportunity in employment.

By putting a stop to work on making pay equity a reality in the public sector, National has done exactly the opposite. If private employers won’t do anything about it, the government won’t either. See – equality!


- Anne Else is a Wellington writer and social commentator. Her occasional column will typically appear on a Monday. You can subscribe to receive Letter From Elsewhere by email when it appears via the Free My Scoop News-By-Email Service

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