Considering New Zealand was the first country to extend the right to vote to women it is rather perplexing that such a prominent issue facing the country is the disparity in pay between the two genders. A simple google search makes it abundantly clear that the issue remains a significant one. Yet the problem remains.
In a potentially game-changing move, the government recently announced its decision to implement recommendations made by the joint working group on ay equity. This will see updates to the Equal Pay Act and the Employment Relations Act, creating a modern day process for women to have their claims of gender pay parity heard and assessed.
The lead up
Kristine Bartlett’s determination to fight for improved wages for herself and her (largely) female colleagues garnered a great deal of media attention. It doesn’t take too much of a stretch to suggest this was a telling factor which led to the government’s announcement.
The intriguing part of Ms Bartlett’s case was her acknowledgement that her male colleagues were also underpaid. How then could it be said there was some form of gender-based inequality? Well Ms Bartlett argued the profession of aged care-workers was underpaid as a whole because of the fact the profession is dominated by women.
When the Court of Appeal heard Bartlett’s case in 2014, they found that a set of principles for the implementation of pay equity should be established. This led to the government establishing the working party to make recommendations as to how this could be achieved. The working party submitted its report to the government in June 2016. Finally we have the government’s response.
In true employment law fashion the government has placed emphasis on the procedures and processes to be followed when determining whether any discrepancies in pay equity exist. The first port of call for employees with a claim will be to enter into “good faith bargaining” with their employer. This may lead to mediation, or a determination from the Employment Relations Authority. Should all else fail things may eventually head to the Employment Court and beyond.
In assessing the validity of a pay equity claim the government accepted some key principles to be considered. Firstly, the work must be shown to be predominantly undertaken by women. Secondly, the work may have been historically undervalued due to its classification as “womens’ work”. Thirdly, a thorough and objective assessment of the skills, responsibilities, conditions, and effort involved in the work must be undertaken. Comparisons with other jobs must then be made in order to establish a claim; the government has adopted a ‘start close, then move out’ mechanism for this stage, whereby employees must try to find a comparison in their own business, then their industry, then their sector.
The significance of the announcement from the government should be not be overstated (it isn’t going to change matters overnight), but nor should it be understated. If these new changes are to have any effect and achieve genuine progress, it is crucial the government ensures it plays an active role in the implementation and execution of these processes. In reality making such claims will likely be timely and costly. Uncertainty remains around the appropriate comparator jobs, and New Zealand companies are not required to record data or submit reports on gender equality indicators – making it difficult for employees to support their case. But no doubt Ms Bartley can be proud of the effect she has had on the government, and pay equity generally.
Regardless of the difficulties, the government’s announcement is a step in the right direction for women’s rights in employment. It has the potential to at least move women closer toward pay parity with men. Only time (and perhaps the right cases) will tell if that potential becomes reality.