BusinessNZ says equal pay must not be 'token'

A joint employer and union working group will develop a set of principles under the Equal Pay Act.

The government's planned working group to deal with claims of unfair pay based on gender, must reflect "economic reality" rather than a "token approach to women's employment" says lobby group Business NZ.

A joint employer and union working group, announced on Tuesday by State Services Minister Paula Bennett and Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Woodhouse, will develop a set of principles under the Equal Pay Act that can be observed by the Employment Court to implement pay equity in the aged-care sector. The move comes after a Court of Appeal ruling found the pay of workers in the female-dominated aged-care sector must be the same as workers' pay in a similar male-dominated industry.

In May 2013, Kristine Bartlett lodged a claim for equal pay from her employer Terranova Homes and Care with the Employment Court, arguing her employer was breaching the Equal Pay Act by paying caregiver wages at a lower rate because 92% of the country's 20,000 rest-home caregivers were women. The subsequent Court of Appeal ruling also paved the way for workers in other industries to get fair pay, which the principles will help establish.

"It is not practical or efficient for workers and employers to have to go to court to seek principles for their particular industry one-by-one," Mr Woodhouse said in a statement

BusinessNZ chief executive Phil O'Reilly, which will represent Kiwi businesses in the working group, said it was "important that the principles reflect economic reality rather than a bureaucratic or token approach to women's employment, while supporting equitable pay rates in women-dominated occupations."

The Public Service Association welcomed the planned working group, with national secretary Erin Polaczuk saying equal pay should be the "norm in 21st century workplaces.

"There has been four decades of inaction since the Equal Pay Act became law in 1972 and women workers deserve fair and equal pay," she said in a statement. "In the public service women's average earnings are 14% less than men's. The PSA estimates these women are being short-changed to the tune of $295 million. Unequal pay represents a huge loss of earnings over a woman's working life."

The joint working group will recommend how to achieve pay equity consistent with New Zealand's employment relations framework and a well-functioning labour market, the ministers said.

On the back of the joint working group to address issues of pay equity, unions have agreed to put a hold on any further industry-wide equal pay legal action until March next year.

The working group includes Helen Kelly, former head of the Council of Trade Unions, with government agencies represented by State Services Commission chief talent officer Andrew Hampton. Recommendations are expected by March and may need to be included in legislation.

The working group announcement comes as Health Minister Jonathan Coleman announced the government had entered negotiations over pay rates for care and support workers, including 50,000 workers in aged and disability care. The parties in those negotiations include the CTU, E Tu, the PSA, NZ Nurses Organisation, NZ Aged Care Association, NZ Disability Support Network, BusinessNZ, District Health Board representatives and the Ministry of Health.