On July 23rd the New Zealand Parliament unanimously passed the Equal Pay Amendment Bill, drawing feelings of both relief and celebration from union members of the New Zealand Public Service Association (PSA). The law elaborates on the international principle of "equal pay for work of equal value" to ensure that work with similar sets of skills, responsibilities and experience should receive equal pay.
Relief because the union had fought for equal pay pretty much “since PSA was formed,” according to PSA Acting National Secretary Kerry Davies, more than 100 years ago; and celebration because after decades of advocating for equal pay and after a number of iterations to their campaign, from “Up where we belong” to “Worth 100%: Same value, Same pay,” New Zealand finally saw that It’s time that historical and systemic sex-based pay undervaluation in female-dominated occupations were dismantled.
It is easy to determine the same pay across genders for the same work, but it is more difficult to determine just pay rates for the same skills in two different jobs
Joining in the celebrations were more than 55,000 women workers who make up 73 percent of PSA membership.
Rejecting a market-based model in determining pay rates
For PSA’s women members and the many others who work in female-dominated occupations such as healthcare, home support, disability support, and others, this Amendment to the Equal Pay Act of 1972 facilitates achievement of pay equity – similar pay for similar skill level – across differing occupations, through a standard job evaluation or job assessment process. “It is easy to determine the same pay across genders for the same work, but it is more difficult to determine just pay rates for the same skills in two different jobs,” Davies noted.
While complicated, job evaluations are an important part of the process of achieving pay equity. For example, a previous job evaluation revealed that while disability support workers have the same level of skills, responsibilities, and qualifications as correction officers, disability support workers are paid around 50 percent less than correction officers.
In addition to a standard job evaluation process, the Amendment also clarifies the “claims” process – according to popular commentary, the Amendment “sets out a bargaining framework for employers, workers and unions to negotiate in good faith. Importantly, it encourages use of mediation and dispute resolution services if agreement is not reached. Court action is now a last resort, which lowers the bar for employees wishing to bring a claim.”
For PSA whose more than 76,000 members are employed by central government, state-owned enterprises, local councils, health boards, and community groups, there was the realization that without proper funding allocation by the government – their employer – any equal pay claims process, even if provided by law, would have “no teeth.” That is why the union is working with the government on an Equal Pay Delivery Plan which is a multi-year funding plan across states and sectors, making sure that no one – no gender, no ethnicity, no occupation – is left behind.
“We are rejecting the market-based model in which the market determines pay rates,” Davies commented. The market, which had conveniently determined that New Zealand’s healthcare, home support, and disability workers, among others, should be paid less than workers in comparable occupations, had kept pay in these female-dominated occupations historically low.
The market, with its penchant for favoring management discretion over objective criteria, had failed the female workers. Fresh from the success of the Equal Pay Amendment Act, PSA is already campaigning for new legislation: pay transparency. A campaign to extend the Equal Pay Act beyond gender to include ethnicity as basis for taking equal pay claims is also being planned. Some 16 percent of PSA’s membership are from the Māori and Pacific Island groups.
Notes for campaigning
That New Zealand continually strives to achieve gender equality in all forms (it is the first country where women were given the right to vote) owes a lot to the country’s unions’ campaigning, including that by PSA. The campaign for equal pay and pay equity had seen “an incredible level of activity by union members on the different levels,” said Davies.
For Davies, what created a whole lot of difference was when the female union members, in those same occupations that the campaign was trying to achieve pay equity for, exposed the real nature of their work and helped people see that their skills, qualifications, and responsibilities are in fact comparable to higher paid occupations.
Over the years, indeed decades, PSA always campaigned in multiple levels – workplace, sector, community – and did a lot of political work. “It’s important to not get disheartened by the lengthy campaigning process, to not be put off by the barriers or complexities put up, for example, by employers,” Davies reminds unions from other Asian countries whose fight for gender equality may just be beginning.