Midwives have launched historic gender pay discrimination legal action after claims their round-the-clock hours mean they earn less than the minimum wage.
The New Zealand College of Midwives filed the country's biggest equal pay challenge at the High Court in Wellington yesterday.
The group claims the set fees paid by the Ministry of Health breach gender rules under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.
The move prompted the country's biggest education union to announce it was planning similar action.
College of Midwives chief executive Karen Guilliland said "99.9 per cent" of those affected are women who are on call 24/7, working with high levels of responsibility.
When midwives, or lead maternity carers, are already attending a birth when another one of their mothers goes into labour, they have to call in a back-up midwife. The original midwife then loses that birthing payment. The average salary for a self-employed midwife, before tax, is $53,000, the college says.
"This case is not only about pay equity for a female workforce, it is also about protecting future mothers and babies and sustaining the midwifery workforce that provides them with the majority of their maternity care. It is the last straw," she said.
"The Ministry of Health cannot continue to ignore and undervalue its female workforces and the thousands of mums and babies that rely on our midwives."
The college, representing 3000 members, says that since 2007 there have been only two small fee increases that have not covered inflation. It argues that midwives earn significantly less than male-dominated professions that require similar skills and responsibility.
The legal action is being led by prominent lawyer Mai Chen. It has been heralded by the New Zealand Nurses Organisation and National Council of Women of New Zealand, which called the college brave for standing up against the "structural sexism" in midwifery.
A senior recruitment consultant at Drake, Rachel Davis, said many occupations, including midwives, could benefit from the introduction of pay brackets which increase with experience.
The country's largest education union, the New Zealand Education Institute, said it too would take legal action over gender discrimination in the workforce.
It had also been watching developments in the case of Lower Hutt caregiver Kristine Bartlett, who last year won in the Supreme Court against her employers over pay discrimination.
It would seek equal pay for Education Support Workers, a female-dominated profession managed by the Ministry of Education to give education support for students with special needs, largely in early childhood.
In 2008, a study found there were around 600 support workers, whose jobs were roughly equivalent to prison officers in skills, responsibilities, and emotional and physical demands. Yet the support workers' top hourly pay was only $19.29 compared with $32.07 for a senior corrections officer.
NZEI said the Pay Equity Commission study had been sidelined by the Government.
"The Government has been ignoring this human rights issue for far too long and we will now pursue our case through the courts," said NZEI National Secretary Paul Goulter.
'We're not in it for the money'
Counties Manukau midwife Diane Klomp is passionate about her work.
"Most midwives are, which is lucky because it's certainly not the money that attracts us," she says.
Ms Klomp admits being "burned out" during her 18-year career.
On call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the hours can be extreme.
"Can you imagine coming home from an 11-hour day, only to get a call and going out to another birth for 12 hours?"
The self-employed lead maternity carer (LMC) has formed an "ad hoc" support group of other midwives.
They back each other up so they can take holidays and weekends.
"Sometimes you just get so exhausted you need someone to come in."
They also provide back-up cover for each other when mothers go into labour while their LMC is busy with another birth.
But while they are grateful for the cover, the original LMC loses the birthing payment which goes to the back-up person.
The pay wouldn't be too bad, Ms Klomp says, if every birth was straightforward.
"When all the hours are counted up, we're not even making double figures," Ms Klomp says.
"My work would not be enough to sustain my household if I was the sole earner."
How does it compare?
Self-employed midwife: $40,000-$60,000
Primary school teacher: $46,000-$72,000
Registered nurse: $47,000-$64,000
Police (with 1-4 years' experience): $52,000-$57,000