Yesterday’s announcement that carers in the aged care and community support sectors will finally have their pay lifted in line with pay equity principles is a breakthrough for women’s human rights. Kristine Bartlett, the carer with decades of experience who took the case, is to be congratulated – as are the unions E Tū, the Public Service Association and the New Zealnd Nurses Organisation who supported the legal action that lead to the government agreeing to negotiate the settlement.
I worked as a caregiver for four years and I can confirm that ensuring the dignity and comfort of our most vulnerable citizens is both physically and emotionally demanding. Equal Opportunities Commissioner Dr Judy McGregor, in her 2012 report Caring Counts which she wrote after working undercover as a carer, described the demands of the job and the low pay as exploitation or modern day slavery.
“The reliance of New Zealand, of all of us, on the emotional umbilical cord between women working as carers and the older people they care for at $13-$14 an hour [2012 rates] is a form of modern-day slavery. It exploits the goodwill of women, it is a knowing exploitation. We can claim neither ignorance or amnesia.”
Despite the report from Dr McGregor, today many of the 55,000 women working as carers and support staff are still paid close to the minimum wage. The agreement reached with the government will mean that they will receive initial increases of $4 an hour rising to $7 an hour in some cases – a move that E Tū regional secretary John Ryall describes as a lift out of “poverty wages.”
While this still doesn’t meet real equity in the pay rates the deal includes gradual increases so that in four years time the top pay rate will reach $27 per hour.
The pay increases will not be backdated. For Kristine Bartlett the amount she has been underpaid due to her gender is about $500,000 over her working life. But back-paying her and the other tens of thousands of women working in the industry would probably send the government broke. The pay increases will cost over $2 billion as it is. And when we take into account the equal pay cases for workers in other female dominated industries – school support staff, midwives, social workers – we start to get an idea of the billions of dollars that women have missed out on over their working lives.
It will be interesting to see what impact this settlement – and the other cases – will have on addressing New Zealand’s appalling gender pay inequality where currently, on average, women earn 13 percent less per hour than men. To help facilitate change in this area my colleague Jan Logie has a bill that will shortly be before the House that would require transparency around pay rates so that women can compare their pay rates to their male counterparts.
Meanwhile the Aged Care Association has supported the settlement saying they believe that higher pay rates will improve their workforce, attracting younger workers to the sector. And Grey Power are also happy as better paid staff means a good standard of care for the clients.
The settlement has yet to be voted on by the union members from the PSA, E Tū and NZNO who will be affected by the deal. While all workers in the sector will benefit from this agreement, it is union members who made this happen. So now is the time to join a union if you want better working conditions and more pay.