All the way for equal pay

Kristine Bartlett is a hero. She and her union, the SWFU, are spearheading the fight for equal pay through the courts. Last year Bartlett was in the Employment Court to argue that her miserable $14.46 an hour after 20 years experience as a caregiver breached the Equal Pay Act 1972. Her reasoning was that her pay was less than men would get for work of the same level of skill, effort and responsibility. She won. In a landmark decision the court ruled for the first time that the Act applied to comparisons between predominantly women’s jobs and men’s.

Bartlett’s employer, the rest home operator Terranova Homes & Care Ltd, appealed the decision with financial assistance from the New Zealand Aged Care Association. The case went to the Court of Appeal on 4 February 2014. The Attorney-General Chris Finlayson intervened to insist that the Court hear from the Government’s representatives because the decision could have “important public policy implications.” Indeed, thousands of women doing under-valued ‘women’s work’ like caring and cleaning jobs stand to gain if the appeal court upholds the original decision. Women’s rates of pay are on average 13% below men’s. Potentially, a huge inroad into the gender-gap is at stake.

Until now the Equal Pay Act has been interpreted narrowly to make it illegal only if employers pay their own men and women staff differently for the same job. This has not helped women in the rest home sector where 92% of the workforce are women. The rest home companies are quite happy to pay the male minority poverty rates too. The Employment Court re-visited the Equal Pay Act and noted that its stated objective was to “make provision for the removal and prevention of discrimination, based on the sex of the employees, in the rates of remuneration of males and females in paid employment.” No where does the Act say that it applies only to discrimination within the same workplace. We must wait for the appeal court’s decision to find out whether the Act will finally be interpreted by judges as it should be.

There are three ways in which women can fight for equal pay: through using the existing law, political action and industrial action. Women are entitled to use all and every means necessary. To a large degree the closing of the gender pay gap intersects with action on low pay. Raising rates for all the lowest paid has an equalising effect. Political pressure to get the minimum wage raised remains important. In last year’s council elections Wellington candidates were asked where they stood on the Living Wage (currently $18.40 an hour). Most said they supported it and the new council is implementing the higher pay. The Living Wage campaign is most potent in the public sector where the employers are elected politicians.

While legal and political action are the means of the moment, and totally justified, looking to the longer term the surest way to get the most widespread, full and long-lasting pay equality is through women, and men, using industrial action. Strong union organisation, and readiness by thousands of women workers to take action for themselves, is a more reliable way of achieving equality than putting hopes in judges and a few politicians. What can be granted from on high can be snatched away from on high.

The under-valuing of ‘women’s work’ is not the whole content of women’s subordinate status in society but it is a big part of it, particularly for working-class women. All workers have a lot to gain from pay equality in terms of both family incomes and in a change of ideas that engenders a culture of anti-discrimination and solidarity.

The employer class will be anxious that the appeal court ruling might go the wrong way for them. A decision in favour of pay equality may not only loosen purse strings but also the grip of reactionary ideas about women that contributes to the artificial divisions that helps keep the rotten capitalist system going.