Prue Hyman is a feminist economist, and the author of Women and Economics: a New Zealand Feminist Perspective. She was an economic consultant to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in the late 1980s and early 90s, and later Associate Professor of Economics and Gender and Women’s Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. Recently I asked Prue about the struggle to close the gender pay gap in New Zealand. To follow is a transcript of the comprehensive, but succinct story that she gave me of the work that lead to the government accepting recommendations from the Joint Working Party on Equal Pay in 2016.

Kate Sheppard was strong on equal pay, in the 1870s. The first wave was more focussed on equal pay for the same job, rather than work of equal value; but they were also discussing women being regarded as dependents, when they were were married and raising families. In the census they were classified as dependents, while they were really doing important work. So right back in the first wave, there was certainly attention on women’s work, paid and unpaid, and pay levels being lower. So it has always been there. It’s had times when it’s been hotter and colder, in terms of feminist action.

Things didn’t quieten down as much as people say they did in the twenties and thirties, after women got the vote. Of course – they couldn’t be in parliament at that point, though they could vote. But it was post second world war that everything really got going again in a big way: women had been drafted in WWII into all sorts of jobs that they hadn’t done before, because it had been regarded as ‘men’s work’, but they did it perfectly capably.

Then when men came back from the war, women were eased out again back to the home; I think that all started to raise people’s consciousness, like mad. There was the second wave, and women getting fed up that they were raising the kids – suburban neurosis, and all that stuff. Everything started waking up and it was in the 1950s that it started to become a definite campaign. There was stuff in the public sector to start with – the public sector got equal pay long before the economy as a whole.

The first Act was 1960: that was the Government Service Equal Pay Act. That was a big advance – it took another twelve years to get into the private sector with a commission of inquiry, and God knows what else! Finally, the National government, ironically, brought in the Equal Pay Act in 1972. It was implemented between 1972 and ’77, in the private sector. Where businesses were paying women less for identical work, that pay gap had to be phased out, over that five years.

It wasn’t until ’72 that there were even statistics on what women’s pay was. There were awards and agreements, which was the way the labour market worked for the unionised labour force (and unionisation was high, then: around 60%). By ’77 they had the statistics that showed how the pay gap for identical work had narrowed quite a lot, during that period. It was reasonably well done: equal pay for identical work was never implemented totally, but the most glaring evidence of it was got rid of at that time.

If you had a clerical workers’ award, for example, it had to be the same for both men and women. The awards had grades associated with them however, and of course you still had the chance to discriminate in terms of equal opportunity, with women more at the lower grades and men more at the top. That wasn’t ruled out at all, in the ’72 Act.

The ’72 Act was supposed to cover equal pay for work of equal value as well, because it did have clauses covering female-dominated work, and equivalent working conditions. That was the part though, that was never very well done. The unions were not geared up for it (they were male dominated too); employers were trying to avoid it, like mad. There were very few real comparisons made to female-dominated work. So they ‘equal pay for equal value’ part of the Act, wasn’t implemented anything like equal pay for identical work.

So it took a few years (people liked to say that the pay gap had narrowed, but it still was quite large) before women went back to the issue. That started happening mid eighties, after the gap was supposed to have closed by ’77 and it hadn’t. There was an Equal Pay Review Committee as well, which was concerned about female-dominated work.

The clerical workers took a case in ’86, based essentially on equal value principles – and lost it. That was largely a very bad decision: the verdict more or less implied that if you had taken an award or agreement registered between 1972 and ’77, you’d accepted you’d got it, and you couldn’t re-open it. It was a bad decision and a bad court, and it probably could have been appealed, but of course all the litigation work is expensive, and so on, and unions weren’t made of money. So they felt it was better to go for new, good legislation, that was clearer than the Equal Pay Act, especially with changing industrial relations, and so forth.

By now, of course, we’re in the mid eighties. The Labour government had come in in ’84, and  were more committed to women’s issues: they brought in the Ministry for Women’s Affairs, and had women’s forums and so on. You had people like Ann Hercus, Margaret Shields and Helen Clark in parliament by then, who were concerned with the issues – but you also had Rogernomics, that was going completely in the other direction in terms of settlements and the way in which the labour market was supposed to be freed up, and be more individualistic. So you had all these contradictions.

So they did go for legislation, but it took ages and ages to get any agreement on what it should be. I was involved in that in the Ministry of Women’s Affairs at the time, though that Labour government that lasted from ’84 to 1990. They finally passed the Employment Equity Act in 1990, which had an “equal pay for work of equal value” clause, one better targeted than the Equal Pay Act had; and had mechanisms for how to do it – but it was still a bit of a compromise, the legislation. I don’t know that it would have worked very well in practice.

The Employment Equity Act had only just got as far as having the first few cases starting to be taken, when National got in in 1990, repealed the legislation, and that was that.

That was a huge setback. Of course equal pay for work of equal value was much more interventionist than the National government wanted. So, 1990-1999, with National in, there was just about no progress at all; and they went for more equal opportunity stuff. They set up an equal opportunity trust, and advised employers on how to treat women better, and so on and so forth. That was about all, there was really nothing going on with equal pay for work of equal value. One or two individual union initiatives in collective bargaining. In that period too, the midwives, during the Labour government, got equal pay for birth fees with doctors, when there were no complications. Doctors proceeded to virtually get out of birth altogether.

When Labour got in again from ’99 to 2008, they didn’t reverse the labour market changes nearly as much as they might have. They improved it a bit, their industrial relations legislation allowed a bit more for collective bargaining; but it wasn’t very major. So it still wasn’t easy for the cause of equal pay for work of equal value.

What they did do was set up the Pay and Employment Equity unit, in the Department of Labour. That was a very useful unit that had power and resources to show departments how to do gender pay audits and to investigate what men and women were paid and why. They did good work in various departments, but it was slow. It went beyond the core public sector, it was supposed to cover health and education, local government. It produced some bloody good research – but it hadn’t got very far in terms of actual changes to occupational pay differences for men and women.

There was going to be a second round of pay audits and pay investigations in the occupations that were most likely to be female dominated and underpaid. They never got going, really they were just starting, when again – Labour lost, National got in, in 2008. When National got back in, they abolished the unit, put a stop to the pay investigations, and so we’re back to square one again.

That was when, finally it was unions – particularly the Service and Food Workers Union and the nurses – they decided to take the case for carers (the 2012 Kristine Bartlett caring case). That was partly because, what else could be done? And partly because there were some better signs – in some respects, apart from the government – that there was a better understanding of indirect, as well as direct, discrimination than there had been. There was the Bill of Rights Act, there were various pieces of human rights legislation that had come in since the first Equal Pay Act, that gave more strength to the arguments against discrimination. In addition, the Employment Court was thought to be pretty good, the people on it, the judges; there had been some reasonable decisions in discrimination cases. A lot of women’s groups helped as well, people like myself were helping the lawyers with the case. There was a huge amount of material put to the court.

We got a good court decision – but it was only as far as saying that ‘Yes, the Equal Pay Act is still alive, and it does still cover, and always did, equal pay for work of equal value’. That women from female-dominated occupations can take a case; with comparators for male-dominated occupations, and it doesn’t have to be within the same employer.

There was a good result, but it had not got as far as stipulating what a payrate should be, or anything. Essentially it was stage one, that said: Yes, we can take a case, and Yes, you can have comparators outside the workplace and that was appealed at the court of appeal, who upheld the Employment Court in a pretty good judgement. They tried to appeal to the Supreme Court, who said they wouldn’t take the case, said they might take it later on when it gets to the principles and actual amounts of money and so on. They weren’t taking it at this point. The next step was to establish some principles (in section 9 of the Equal Pay Act).

That was underway, but the government was scared to death, I think, of what the court would find.That it would cost a lot of money, that the principles would extend to a lot of female-dominated work, and so on. So the government proposed setting up a tripartite Working Party, with employers, unions and government, to try to set up the principles themselves and have them established by themselves and not by the courts.

This was in 2015. There ended up being two working parties, one for principles, and one to look at the actual case, the caring work itself. The “principles” Working Party reported toward the end of last year. The government accepted the principles toward the end of the year – to my view, they are not that brilliant, and do not do too much more than the Act does already. But they do have some mechanisms stuff in there, it’s a good start. The only thing was that the government were nervous about how wide the comparators were, and said you should have a hierarchy of comparators, and you should look within the workplace first. That’s where things are at with that Working Party.

The government has said changes to the Equal Pay Act will be needed in order to implement it, and those are going to be done in the first half of this year. A lot of us are nervous about opening up the Equal Pay Act, thinking it could have just been done by a set of regulations added to the Act. Once you start amending an Act – who knows what the government will try and amend it to say. Watch this space!

The other Working Party on the actual amounts, and processes for caring work, has gone on and on. One hears rumours about it – there has certainly been an offer; it may be quite a few dollars. The caring workers are only paid, in the private sector, a little above minimum wage. Similar workers in the public sector probably receive around $21 or $22, and what one fears may happen is that they will even it up – pay parity between public and private sectors. That would be hard to turn down, and quite reasonably the workers in the industry would jump at it; but it is not true pay equity. Both sorts of workers are underpaid relative to other sorts of work, and we think something like $25-6 an hour, at a guess, would be better.

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Click here for a February 12 interview with Prue Hyman on the same topic.

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