Legal challenge brought change
It could be argued that only a centre-right government could have pulled off the politics of last week’s major pay rise to workers in the agedcare sector. Almost certainly, a Labour-led government would have been accused of colluding with its union mates, and of recklessly putting the economy at risk through a commitment to feminism and identity politics.
As things stood, it was still odd to hear Prime Minister Bill English preaching the social virtues of raising wages for the lowly paid. Furthermore, English claimed that this pay hike would enable employers to reap the benefits of reduced staff turnover via the upskilling of their workforce, and the creation of a viable career path for them. Could this really be the same political party that was willing to throw the workforce to the mercies of the free market back in the early 1990s, with the Employment Contracts Act?
In similar vein, National’s first act on winning the 2008 election had been to scrap the Labour Department’s pay equity unit. Also, hadn’t an incoming National government in 1990 chosen to bin the Employment Equity Act, the key mechanism for making inter-sectoral pay comparisons possible? Until last week, successive National governments had looked more like the enemy of women seeking redress for gender-based pay discrimination, and not their saviour.
Over 90 per cent of workers in the aged care, disability care and home support sector are female. Given the skills and responsibility that the work entails, these workers would have been paid more if they were men. Therefore – as the courts have found – the wage conditions in the sector contravene the Equal Pay Act of 1972. To put that another way, it could well be argued that workers in this sector are owed about 45 years of back pay. However, no back pay will be in the offing when the new rates of pay kick in from July 1. By contrast, MPs routinely get paid back pay when their income is ratcheted upwards each year.
What turned this particular ship around? Essentially, it came down to the legal challenge launched by Christine Bartlett, an experienced aged-care worker who was still being paid minimum wage rates after 20 years working at the same resthome. Will workers in other female-intensive occupations (eg retail, or hospitality workers) now be able to successfully mount similar claims? Only with difficulty. The same government/ unions/employers troika that agreed to last week’s settlement have also produced a set of principles (shortly to be enshrined in legislation) that will create a high hurdle for any future claims.
Obviously, the aged care settlement has been excellent news for the workers set to benefit from a pay rise of between 15-49 per cent. This happy outcome raises two wider issues. Ultimately, why has the taxpayer needed to do all of the heavy lifting on the wages and conditions in this highly profitable sector? Moreover, what regulatory action - if any - will the government be taking to deter the private sector providers from extracting any flow-on wage costs to them, out of the unlucky rest home residents whose means (and savings) will leave them above the subsidy threshold?