In August two claims were filed with the High Court of New Zealand over gender discrimination in pay, on what appears to be a growing legal battle for equal pay for women across New Zealand industries.
By Rakesh Lal, Auckland
The New Zealand Education Institute (NZEI) union on behalf of education support workers and the New Zealand College of Midwives on behalf of midwives, are both seeking legal redress for the long standing pay inequality caused by gender discrimination of female-dominated industries, compared to equally skilled roles in other sectors.
This comes in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling in late 2014 which upheld a case made by the Service and Food Workers Union (Kristine Bartlett vs Terranova), that a care worker was being paid far less by her employer because of systemic undervaluing of the female dominated industry. The ruling did not confirm they were being underpaid, but instead upheld an earlier Employment Court ruling that the Equal Pay Act 1972 can be interpreted in a way that would allow comparison between similar workers in other sectors both in New Zealand and abroad to demonstrate lower pay rates.
For now, with this precedent for interpreting the Equal Pay Act, other female-dominated workforces have been looking to make similar arguments, and gain legal recognition for systemic and historical pay discrimination.
This issue is not unique, and the Service and Food Workers Union case was bolstered by similar cases and inquiries that have been heard in the UK and Australia in the past decade.
Looking forward, the impact of a ruling in favour of pay equity in these cases would be widespread, and potentially cost employers and the government millions in reparations. If so, this would be a huge win for gender equality and workers in Aotearoa. However, the court proceedings are a long and expensive battle that may well be delayed for some time to come. The existing case by the Service and Food Workers Union is still being heard in the Employment Court, after initially being filed in late 2012.
Class battle lines are drawing. The government has reached out to the Service and Food Workers Union, so we may see the offer of settlements put on the table. If these cases go all the way, it is likely to mean significant future pay increases for workers in female dominated industries to close the gaps with other similarly skilled industries.
It is likely that in the coming months the capitalist class will also attempt to circumvent or restrict the cost of wider reparations, ultimately using the government’s legislative powers to mitigate against further or historical claims in favour of female workers. Without broader public support the government will get away with closing off historical claims.
It is imperative that the working class find ways to support these women in their fight, and unions are well positioned to play a very important role. Specific unions have already assisted in making the current claims possible, but the wider union movement needs to be proactive in their support; they too can be vocal as these cases unfold in the courts and in the media; they too can raise awareness of gender discrimination with their members; they too can carry the slogan – equal pay for equal work!
In carrying that claim, we acknowledge that legal action alone cannot resolve such systemic issues. A fundamental problem lies in this very system that enacts worker oppression, and maintains gender discrimination.