Five years ago, after working undercover as a carer, I wrote: "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 nor amnesia."
This week's announcement of a settlement for three Government-funded service sectors that employ mainly women on low rates included aged residential care, home support, and disability services.
It shows that New Zealand as a fair society can acknowledge deep injustice and do something about it.
The settlement will help to acknowledge the material deficits of low pay and the unfairness of such underpayment over a lifetime of work.
It will also have a profound symbolic effect. The settlement acknowledges the social, cultural and political value of a carer's role at a time when demographics make caring work indispensable.
Caring Counts: Report of the Inquiry into the Aged Care Workforce, written when I was Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner with the New Zealand Human Rights Commission, was one catalyst for the ensuing court action involving Kristine Bartlett and other caregivers in the Terra Nova case.
Senior trade unionists, women's groups, lawyers, sections of the media, several female politicians, and enlightened industry sector representatives have also fought hard to put equal pay in the spotlight as a fundamental human right in recent years.
Other equal pay settlements will likely follow in female-dominated sectors: librarians, education support workers, midwives, call centre staff and other retail staff for example.
In the private sector hundreds of professional women are daily short-changed in starting rates, then again when they suffer "motherhood penalties" involving pay and promotion.
Transparency of pay by gender is urgently required. The "right to ask" about equal pay might be remedied if Green MP Jan Logie's private member's bill, which has been drawn from the ballot, is supported by other parties including Government benches.
Suggestions that the private sector will be sobered by the Government announcement of a pay deal need to be put in perspective.
Aged residential care sector chains have been some of New Zealand fastest risers on the New Zealand Stock Exchange in recent years.
Annual reports show increased Government subsidies to many of these chains. One annual report also reveals that its chief executive's remuneration is 21.7 times that of an average employee.
I believed, when I worked as a carer, daily hoisting, toileting, showering, providing empathy, being the ears and eyes of clients being cared for, trying to ensure they were safe and happy, that the emotional and physical labour was discounted by employers.
They relied on women's essential goodness to provide high-quality care that is commercialised, commodified and marketed by companies.
The private sector has both an obligation and an opportunity to show equal pay and pay equity leadership as the Government and unions have done.
- Judy McGregor is a former Equal Opportunities Commissioner with the Human Rights Commission, a former newspaper editor, and is now a professor at AUT.