Judy McGregor: Mighty pay rise overlooks aged carers

Difference between 'sensible' and 'unaffordable' pay increase depends on where political priorities lie.

Mighty River Power directors will receive a 73 per cent salary increase which will take chairwoman Joan Withers' (above) remuneration to $150,000. Photo / Greg Bowker
Mighty River Power directors will receive a 73 per cent salary increase which will take chairwoman Joan Withers' (above) remuneration to $150,000. Photo / Greg Bowker

A startling aspect of the 73 per cent pay rise for directors of Mighty River Power is that Prime Minister John Key says it is "realistic" and "sensible" to do it now before the company is listed on the sharemarket next month.

It is apparently "realistic" for the directors' base pay to rise from $49,000 each a year to $85,000, while chairwoman Joan Withers will receive $150,000, up from $98,000.

It is also "realistic" to deal with it now because "their fee structure is out of whack with what we see in terms of private and listed and publicly listed companies so, yeah, I think it is sensible to make that step now".

The Prime Minister clearly sees a pay equality issue at governance level.

Compare those comments, though, with those made by the Prime Minister last year in response to calls to increase the shockingly low pay for the 30,000-plus women earning as little as $14.50 an hour who care for the elderly at home or in residential facilities.

John Key said, "It's one of those things we'd love to do if we had the cash. As the country moves back to surplus, it is one of the areas we can look at but I think most people would accept this isn't the time we have lots of extra cash."

This, too, is an equal pay issue, arguably a far more compelling one.

District Health Boards fund their own carers working within hospitals between $3 to $5 more per hour than carers working in homecare or residential homes, who are also paid by Vote Health through DHB contracts. An open and shut case of unequal pay at the worker level and a fundamental breach of human rights.

New Zealand has ratified major human rights conventions that state everyone, without discrimination or distinction of any kind, has the right to equal pay for equal work. In particular women, and over 90 per cent of age care workers are female, must be guaranteed the right to equal remuneration, including benefits, and to equal treatment in respect of work of equal value, as well as equality of treatment in the evaluation of the quality of work.

New Zealand is also wilfully ignoring the United Nations business and human rights agenda that states unequivocally that State parties cannot avoid their human rights obligations through contracting out public services. DHBs who contract out elder care have a responsibility to ensure equal pay flows through to the workers of providers, just as it does to their own employees.

The Human Rights Commission in its national inquiry into equal employment opportunities in aged care, Caring Counts, undertook financial modelling which showed that to rectify the pay inequality would cost approximately $140 million over three years, approximately 1 per cent of the health budget. But this 1 per cent was apparently "unaffordable".

Equal pay and pay equity for carers has, of course, little to do with "affordability" and everything to do with political priorities of the day. Fixing up directors fees is a political priority for the Government. Fixing up carers' pay, a matter of enduring national shame, is not.

So what can carers, the older people they care for, the providers and the age care industry themselves do to influence political priority setting?

First, unions such as the Service and Food Worker's Union and others who represent carers, are litigating the equal pay claims of carers. This may, or may not, positively influence policy setting around equal pay for carers.

It will certainly expose the inadequacies of New Zealand's current equal pay legislation.

Second, opposition political parties are likely to take up aged care and the payment of carers when they negotiate their policies for the next general election.

A more immediate opportunity for citizen action is presented by the elections for District Health Boards to be held this year.

Voters could actively support sitting members and newbies who commit to equal pay for aged care workers and could legitimately ask two questions of potential candidates:

1. Do you support equal pay for aged care workers being paid via DHB funding?

2. What will you do as a DHB member to ensure equal pay mechanisms are introduced in your three year term?

DHB candidates wanting to secure the popular vote could promote their support for equal pay in their candidate profile material, at public meetings and in advertisements.

The words "EQUAL PAY FOR CARERS" total only four of the allowed 120 words for the traditional candidate's profile mailed to voters.

Given the remarkable level of support and consensus from the unions, older people and the aged care industry that greeted the recommendations of the Caring Counts report, this could give candidates a competitive advantage.

DHB members who commit to rectifying the equal pay injustice could form an important political constituency.

A home care assistant working with older people recently wrote to me: "We have not had an increase in 5.5 years. We have remained on an hourly wage of $14.26 for domestic assistance and $15.19 (day rate) and $15.69 (evening rate) since 2007. I have honestly NEVER felt so used and unappreciated ..."

Imagine what she could do with a 73 per cent increase? But then aged care workers are not greedy. They simply want what should be theirs by right.

Local body voters have an opportunity to exercise their rights to ensure equal pay for aged care workers is "realistic" and "sensible" because their pay structure is "out of whack".

Professor Judy McGregor Head of Social Sciences and Public Policy, AUT (Auckland University of Technology) Formerly, EEO Commissioner, New Zealand Human Rights Commission.

- NZ Herald

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