By Saunoamaali'i Karanina Sumeo
Essential workers are just that, essential. They're also incredibly important and brutally undervalued.
When Covid-19 hit, essential workers enabled all our lives to continue as smoothly as possible. They are manufacturers, supermarket workers, social service workers, bus drivers, trade workers, food producers and, of course healthcare workers.
We have long left these people, who are so crucial to our communities, to fend for themselves when it comes to negotiating their pay and terms of employment. Leaving workers to negotiate with their employers on their own enables inequities to persist. It's a stark power imbalance, but it's one that's being addressed.
Largely behind the scenes, government, unions and business leaders have been working together since 2019 towards what could be the most significant change in industrial relations in New Zealand in more than 30 years. The Fair Pay Agreement system brings together employers and unions to bargain for minimum terms and conditions for all employees in specific industries or occupations.
This March, the Fair Pay Agreements Bill was introduced into Parliament and is now open for submissions. The Bill aims to set minimum standards across industries and to entrench unions as key partners in bargaining. Fair pay agreements have the potential to lift low-wage workers out of poverty. That is a goal we can all aspire to support.
Fair Pay Agreements, setting out basic expectations of pay and work conditions, can provide needed certainty for workers and businesses as part of Covid-19 recovery. I am hopeful that the Fair Pay Agreements Bill will lead to better protection of rights for all workers throughout the country.
Everyone benefits from fairness and decency. For women, and specifically ethnic minority women, it's easiest to see how greater equity can be achieved.
As the Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner, I have spent more than three years meeting workers and listening to their stories to understand the barriers to achieving fair work and pay conditions. I'm also leading a national inquiry into the Pacific pay gap. This is the difference in pay based on ethnicity and gender. Pacific men only earn 76 cents to the dollar of New Zealand European men. For Pacific women that's even worse at 73 cents. That disparity ought to horrify us. I have heard so many stories of underpay and undervaluation, wage theft, and wage secrecy where the individuals would have benefited from an industry-wide Fair Pay Agreement.
A decline in the gender pay gap in the public sector is due, in part, to the implementation of Te Mahere Mahi Rerekētanga Ira Tangata, the public service's gender pay gap action plan. Where's that fire and urgency to close ethnic pay gaps? The ethnic pay gap continues to present a barrier to equal pay for workers of different ethnicities. In 2020 figures, the gap in average hourly wages experienced by Pacific men is 24 per cent and Pacific women is 27 per cent when compared to NZ European men.
That's hugely significant by any measure. There's a gap of 23 per cent between Māori women and NZ European men. Between NZ European men and Māori men that gap is 20 per cent. For Asian men, the gap is 18 per cent and for Asian women, 22 per cent.
No one answer is going to close our country's substantial pay gaps. Fair Pay Agreements though, have the potential to lift up those on the lowest incomes, ensure the safety of those most at risk and create positive changes. We know that pay gaps will continue to persist in a deregulated industry model.
While government have a duty to protect human rights and businesses have a duty to respect human rights, they need support. We need all stakeholders, workers and employers working together so that we can uphold, respect and fulfil the realisation of human rights for all throughout our country.
The Bill is open for submissions until tomorrow. I encourage everyone to use this feedback process and tell the government's Education and Workforce Committee how important this change will be for Aotearoa New Zealand.
• Saunoamaali'i Karanina Sumeo is the Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner