One of my favourite protest signs of all time shows up at most women's marches, inevitably held by an older woman.

It reads something along the lines of: "I can't believe I still have to protest this shit".

Women have been fighting for an infuriatingly long time to encourage the belief that we are valuable human beings, deserving of respect, pay and rights equal to those afforded to men.

When the Government announced on Tuesday that it would increase the wages of those working in the largely female-dominated profession of care work, I felt both jubilant and weary.


Thrilled by the news that the people doing such important work will finally be paid fairly, and jaded by the reminder that it took several court cases and nearly 45 years for the Equal Pay Act to support the notion that "women's work" is just as valuable as "men's work", although the two often remain segregated.

Whereas much of the news coverage hailed the announcement as a well-deserved victory for Kristine Bartlett and her co-workers, I did hear one commentator describe the pay rise as "artificial", justifying the characterisation by arguing that the increase in pay wasn't tied to an increase in productivity or hours worked.

I wondered if he could actually hear what he was saying.

The only thing "artificial" about this situation was the pervasive undervaluing of women's work.

The wages these mostly female care workers have historically received were not a true reflection of the value of their work.

They were being paid at discounted rates. Now, finally, the half-price sale is over.

The work they do is vital, unglamorous and at times downright unpleasant, yet carers ensure that some of our most vulnerable citizens are afforded the dignity and kindness they deserve.

It's hard to put a price on that. If we were to take to its logical conclusion the principle of "equal pay for work of equal value" - which the New Zealand courts unanimously accepted - questions could be asked about the relative value of caring for the elderly and people living with disabilities compared to any number of arguably much less important and much more lucrative occupations.

Thinking about societal value isn't exactly sexy and exciting but the simple fact is that our communities would grind to a halt without the service of those working in female-dominated occupations such as care work, teaching, and nursing. (Not to mention the fact that we'd be crippled as a nation if women stopped shouldering the lion's share of unpaid domestic work.)

Teacher aides have just entered into mediation with the Ministry of Education after a 10-year battle.

During at least three of my six primary school years, I was in a class in which a teacher aide looked after one of my classmates with compassion and absolute dedication.

They deserve every cent of the pay rise I hope they will eventually receive.

When the argument moves to the private sector, however, as it inevitably will, questions will be raised about why companies should pay women who have been willing to work for low wages more than they effectively "need" to.

Those questions deserve to be regarded with utter contempt.

The status quo in this situation is sexism and any company that seeks to argue that there is no "need" to pay the women propping up our communities what they're worth, deserves to feel the wrath of public opinion.

Thankfully, private companies are being forced - by a National Government, no less - to confront the idea that it is now unacceptable to view women as sources of cheap labour.

With the centre-right Government taking a moral stance on this issue, business knows it risks looking miserly and callous should it drag its feet or dig in its heels.

Especially companies in the aged-care sector. It is difficult to argue that workers at the bottom of the heap shouldn't be paid more in a profitable industry that will grow rapidly over coming decades.

Economists with an eye on the wellbeing of all New Zealanders rather than just those at the top would also be hard-pressed to spin this in a negative light.

Increasing low incomes has the effect of increasing the amount of money that families have to spend, injecting cash into the economy.

Although that injection is currently coming from the public purse, the private sector will feel the pressure to keep up with increased public pay rates to attract workers who could otherwise find better-paid work in state-subsidised employment.

Bizarrely, National may have just instigated one of the most significant reorganisations of wealth that New Zealand has seen in a long time, coming down on the side of fairness for workers at the expense of its traditional business base.

It will be interesting to see just how far-reaching the consequences of its decision will be.

The one niggling concern I can't shake is whether the wresting of power from the courts in favour of mediation and a set of criteria decided through a legislative process that remains within the Government's control will help other groups of workers seeking pay equity in the future - or screw them.

As wonderful as the news is that care workers will finally be paid their due, we shouldn't forget that the Government's hand was effectively forced by a case in which the most powerful courts in the land sided with the underdogs.

In agreeing to raise pay rates in the aged-care sector, the Government avoided a likely slew of similar cases that may have proved costly.

Aged-care workers had leverage with the courts on their side. Others may not be so fortunate.

For now though, we should celebrate and congratulate the unions and the Government on their constructive collaboration.

And then, once the confetti has been swept away, we should remain vigilant.

If the history of the women's movement is anything to go by, only time will tell whether we will indeed find ourselves protesting this shit again.