Opinion: NZ should legislate to promote pay equity

Catriona MacLennan, Vicky Mee and Judy McGregor look at the issue of pay equity in NZ society and what needs to be done to improve it.
Image / iStock
Image / iStock

The pay equity principles announced on June 7 by the Joint Working Group on Pay Equity Principles are a missed opportunity to make giant strides to close the gender pay gap in New Zealand.

The working group was set up by the Government last October to develop pay equity principles, following a rash of legal claims by women whose pay remains lower than men 44 years after the Equal Pay Act was passed.

New Zealand has a national gender pay gap of 14 per cent. The pay gaps for Māori, Pasifika and immigrant women, and for women with disabilities, are even higher. Māori women are paid only 76 per cent of what men receive, while Pasifika women earn only 69.9 per cent of male earnings. 71.1 per cent of women with disabilities earned less than $30,000 in 2013.

The United Nations committee which monitors progress on implementing the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women has repeatedly highlighted New Zealand's failure to progress pay equity.

The Pay Equity Coalition Auckland welcomes the principles released by the Joint Working Group on Tuesday and hopes the Government will speedily endorse them, so they can be used to finalise the pay equity claims currently awaiting resolution.

The Government also needs to move swiftly to provide funds to settle the claims of Kristine Bartlett and other caregivers earning shockingly low wages after decades of experience in their jobs.

Any argument that the Government does not have funds for pay equity, or that the country cannot afford to redress the underpayment of women, would have no credibility in the current environment, when there are proposals for $20 billion to be spent on Defence and $3 billion on tax cuts.

There are also three key issues which have not been addressed in the principles released on Tuesday. Without progress on them, the gender pay gap between men and women will remain.

First, New Zealand has a complaints-based system for dealing with equal pay claims. This requires individual women or their unions to come forward and make claims. Many women are fearful about the impact such a claim would have on their future employment prospects, and lack the resources to launch claims on their own behalf.

Rather than placing the onus on the disadvantaged party, New Zealand should instead legislate for a positive duty on employers to close the pay gap between men and women. This would require employers to take pro-active steps to assess their wage differentials and then act to remedy them.

Secondly, the working group's principles do nothing to address the significant and persistent gender pay gap which is attributable to straight-out sexism. In-depth analysis both in New Zealand and overseas has shown lower pay for women can be attributed partly to factors such as less experience and time out of the workforce to care for children.

However, on top of that there is a gap between men's and women's pay which is described as "unexplained." It exists - and persists - regardless of women's qualifications, skills, or length of time in a particular occupation.

That gap is not in fact unexplained. It is attributable to discrimination. Employers frequently continue to pay men more than they pay women, irrespective of merit.

The 2015 Remuneration Survey by Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand showed male chartered accountants in this country earned an average of $45,573 more than their female counterparts. Male chartered accountants aged 50 or older were paid an average of $55,000 more than women.

The Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand's Remuneration Survey 2015 revealed the median salary of male engineers was 22 per cent higher than that of their female counterparts.

The Auckland Women Lawyers' Association's 2014 research, Women's career progression in Auckland law firms: Views from the top, views from below found that the average income for male lawyers who participated in the research was $157,759.The average for female lawyers was $143,431.

The principles proposed by the working group do nothing to address the failure of employers to pay men and women with the same qualifications the same pay for the same work.

Thirdly, this country needs transparency about pay. At present, employers are able to continue to pay men more and women less because it is difficult for women, unions and others to obtain specific information about what people are paid.

There needs to be a right for people to ask what their colleagues are paid, so the size of the gender pay gap can be identified and action can be taken to close it.

The United Kingdom in 2010 passed the Equality Act, which established a right to pay equality.

New Zealand needs a similar right. We also need to place an onus on employers to ensure that pay systems have been subject to a gender-inclusive job evaluation standard, and require them to keep pay equality records and record differentials. The records should be able to be inspected by Labour Inspectors.

Progress on equal pay has been glacial since our Equal Pay Act was passed closed to half a century ago. Let's take decisive steps and end this outdated discrimination now.

Catriona MacLennan, Vicky Mee and Judy McGregor are members of the Pay Equity Coalition Auckland.

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