Mana Wāhine Claim: Māori women workers unite to challenge colonial legacies and restore indigenous workers’ rights

This story shows the power of women’s leadership in the collective struggle to protect indigenous workers’ rights in workplaces around Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Public Services International (PSI) conducted interviews with three wāhine Māori unionists who have been leaders in Te Rūnanga o Ngā Toa Āwhina, a network of around 10,000 Māori members of the Public Service Association (PSA).

Georgina Kerr, Leslie and Marcia Puru tell us about their involvement in the Mana Wāhine wai 2864 claim to challenge discrimination and racism against Māori women in the workplace. They tell us about their work to improve conditions for Māori workers in the public sector, as well as about the more challenging aspects detailing personal experience with discrimination, and how they are using their collective power to create change for future generations.

Te Tiriti o Waitangi (The Treaty of Waitangi) is the foundation of European colonisation of Aotearoa / New Zealand. The signing of the treaty between the British Crown and Māori chiefs in 1840 confirmed formal settlement of the Pākehā (European settlers) on Aotearoa. Māori women contend that the Treaty marked the point at which Māori women’s leadership roles in the pre-colonial Aotearoa were erased. The Crown deliberately excluded Māori women chiefs from signing the Treaty due to their colonial sexist attitude toward women, which undermined their authority, and disrupted the balance that existed between Māori men and women.

Signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi (The Treaty of Waitangi) 1840

From the beginning, the principles set out in the Treaty: partnership, participation and protection, have either not been upheld or it has been used for the benefit of Pākehā to the detriment of Māori, who represent 16.5% of New Zealand’s 4.7 million population. The colonisation of Aotearoa led to discrimination and systemic racism against Māori people for many generations. Introduction of diseases, land alienation, cultural marginalisation and deliberate destruction of culture and language has entrenched inequalities in the country. For instance, Māori life expectancy is 7 to 7.4 years less than non-Māori; the median income for Māori is 71% that of Pākehā; 25.5% of Māori leave upper secondary school with no qualifications; and over 50% of the prison population is Māori.[1]

Māori life expectancy is 7 to 7.4 years less than non-Māori

“What we would call mainstream education was hugely discriminatory against our kids...because it kept telling them they that they were dumb. That they’re not, you know, they can’t read, that they can’t do things so they accepted it,” shared Georgina Kerr, Rūnanga Kuia (elder) in the PSA from the Ngāti Porou iwi.

Since 1975, a Waitangi Tribunal has been used to consider claims by Māori against the state for breaches of the principles to address prejudice against Māori and provide recompense. Public Service Association (PSA) or Te Pūkenga Here Tikanga Mahi, PSI’s affiliate representing 80,000 workers in the public sector, conducted a survey of its wāhine Māori (Māori women) members in 2019. The survey revealed disturbing levels of bias, racism and discrimination in the workplace and led to the launch of a Mana Wahine campaign to gain redress for Maori women workers.

“You’re Maori, they might be Pākehā, but they’re doing the same role as you, however they’re getting paid more than you,” said Marcia Puru, a Māori unionist from the Waikato Tainui tribe.

“And it also has a huge impact on the type of work that they can do and what they are offered, which is usually low-paying jobs like care and health...,” added Lesley Dixon, Māori Vice President of the PSA and a mental health worker for Māori.

“You could tell you were being treated differently to others...trying to get into a leadership role within my workplace was really difficult for indigenous people, for Maori women and Maori in general,” Marcia added further.

Rūnanga claimants - Georgina Kerr, Llani Harding and Paula Davis

Te Rūnanga o Ngā Toa Āwhina, a network of around 10,000 Māori members of the PSA, took a claim (Wai 2864) to the Waitangi Tribunal, calling out the Crown for treaty breaches that have relegated generations of wāhine Māori to low-paid jobs and vulnerable work conditions. These include the state’s failure to provide education that adequately prepares wāhine Māori for employment, and to eliminate bias and discrimination in the workplace. The Rūnanga structure within the PSA encouraged Māori women to stay in the union and organise Māori workers.

“In 2006 I joined and then I stayed in the union because they told me that there was a Rūnanga a hui [conference] was held back in 1987, to talk about that and then from there a resolution made to say yes, we want to make sure that our union is thinking about Māori, and we want to form a network or structure that allows us to do that, and that was then endorsed by the union in 1988,” recalled Marcia. “The Rūnanga has been working since then to advocate for the Treaty of Waitangi,” she added.

The Rūnanga has been working since then to advocate for the Treaty of Waitangi

Georgina and Marcia highlight how the strength of other Māori women, access to education, hard work, and determination helped them overcome obstacles in life and build the confidence to lead others.

“My grandmother was a great advocate...she always said, you know you must take c

ontrol of your life,” shared Georgina.

“I think it's about the culture, and I think it's a bit of the determination of wāhine Maori to make a difference. We've had to fight in our lives,” said Marcia.

“We are advantaged in many ways, but we used that advantage to help our people. To help them to be strong and confident,” added Georgina

Mana Wāhine team at PSA: Janice Panoho (Kaihautu Maori-Maori Manager) Helen Panoho (Executive Assistant) Paula Davis (Claimant) Dolly Larkins (PSA organiser responsible for Te Rūnanga o nga Toa Awhina (TRONTA)-PSA Indigenous network) Virgil Iraia (Teina, Deputy Convenor for TRONTA) Marcia Puru (Kaiwhakarite Maori, PSA staff member responsible for Mana Wahine Claim), Lesley Dixon (Tuakana-Convenor for TRONTA), Tania Te Whenua (Lawyer for the Claim), Allan Franks (Claimant), Georgina Kerr (KUIA/Elder for PSA and Claimant)

PSA Rūnanga’s Wai 2864 claim is a renewal of the Mana Wāhine Kaupapa Inquiry (Wai 2700), which was first filed in 1993 by a group of Māori women leaders, alleging the state deliberately and systemically oppressed Māori women since 1840. This inquiry, formally initiated in December 2018, found evidence of prejudice to Māori women as a result of Treaty breaches by the Crown, with a significant pay gap of 23% between Pākehā men and wāhine Māori. Data from the Ministry for Women in 2018 shows the pay gap for Māori women is 18%, compared to the national gender pay gap of 9.4%. The same figures show Māori women face an unemployment rate of 11%, compared with the national rate of 4.5%.

The pay gap for Māori women is 18%, compared to the national gender pay gap of 9.4%

“We truly acknowledge the Maori women’s welfare league at the time, the strong wahine Maori women who led the claim and started the claim years ago,” said Marcia.

“And we’re almost like 20 years down the track and we’ve still got nowhere on their claim and now we’re saying enough is enough, they’ve got to be held to account,” she added.

“The whole claim has been really exciting because it's the ruling from it about historical stuff, what women went through before as to what's happening now hasn’t moved a hell of a lot,” shared Leslie.

“It’s put a lot of issues like racism, discrimination and bias, right to the forefront,” said Georgina

Marcia Puru and Georgina Kerr

The strong campaigning led to the government pledging $6.2m in July 2019 to support the inquiry and make amends for the colonial injustices. The tribunal decided to take a chronological approach to the inquiry, recognising the issues affecting wāhine Māori in employment involve both historical and contemporary breaches, including discrimination and racism against Maori women. In a consultation with the parliament in March 2020, Rūnanga claimants discussed developing a centralised approach for Māori recruitment, appointment and training to address inequity facing wāhine Māori in work, in parallel to the inquiry.

Rūnanga members consult the Mana Wahine claim with Labour’s Māori Caucus at Parliament

A series of tūāpapa hearings began in 2021 for the Crown to hear historic and contemporary grievances relating to policy, practice, acts and omissions, as well as the intergenerational effects of colonisation and the negative socioeconomic impacts on wāhine Māori. These hearings will set the foundations for the Mana Wahine Kaupapa Inquiry to explore remedies for the breaches and their consequences on wāhine Māori. It is noteworthy that Aotearoa endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2010 (UNDRIP) but has not yet ratified ILO Convention 169 Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention.

With support from the PSA, and with the strong leadership of the Rūnanga, Māori workers are organising to challenge the generational harm done to wāhine Māori through colonial legacies.

They are asserting the principles of the Treaty and demanding an end to the systemic discrimination and racism against indigenous workers in the workplace. Before colonisation, wāhine Māori were strong and respected members of their tribe as spiritual and political leaders. Wāhine Māori are reclaiming their power through strong union organising, through solidarity and a determination to leave a legacy for future generations of wāhine Māori in Aotearoa.

Profile of the respondents:

Georgina Kerr:

Georgina is a Kuia (elder) and one of the main claimants for the Mana Wāhine claim. Georgina has been inspirational in the movement for all women, but especially Māori women within the PSA. She is a leading voice in addressing inequalities for Māori and in particular women in all sectors of the workforce as well as in education, housing inequalities and poverty.

Lesley Dixon:

Lesley is a mental health worker specifically for Māori people. She has been a member of PSA for 30 years and a delegate for about 12. She now is a Maori enterprise delegate, a voice for Maori people within the PSA structure. She is a Tuakana in the Tuakana-teina role, and is on the Executive Board for PSA. She is also the first Māori Vice President of the PSA.

Marcia Puru:

Marcia is part of the Waikato Tainui tribe. She started off as a delegate within the Union and has advocated for Māori people, becoming an organizer for Māori within her union. The experiences that shape her activism are those as a delegate or as a worker, as a Māori woman and also within whanau hapu iwi and then as an employee of the union PSA.


[1] “Statistics New Zealand.” Stats NZ. (2018 Census)

* Written by Trimita Chakma and Josephine Foster