Lessons from across the ditch: Teuila Fuatai looks at challenges care workers could face in the next five years as wage increases are implemented

For Lower Hutt’s Kristine Bartlett, Monday’s announcement outlining pay increases for care workers is the culmination of five years of fighting for fairer pay. It’s a significant achievement which pushes New Zealand closer to addressing the undervaluing of work in female-dominated jobs.

Across the ditch, it’s also been five years since a decision was handed down by Australia’s national workplace relations tribunal. The decision awarded wage increases, of between 19 and 41 percent over an eight-year period, to 150,000 community sector workers whose jobs in female-dominated workforces had been historically undervalued. Over here, Tuesday’s announcement outlined wage increases of between 15 and 50 percent for 55,000 care sector workers over five years, totalling a $2 billion funding boost in that time.

Lisa Heap, adjunct professor at the Australian Catholic University, lawyer and expert in gender pay equity, has been closely involved with cases in both jurisdictions. Heap, who advised the PSA and NZCTU during Bartlett’s case with Terranova, and was also on hand to assist in establishing the pay equity principles accepted by the Government last year, said problems with the roll-out of the wage increase in Australia were important for New Zealand.

“Similar to the New Zealand situation in the aged care sector, whilst the employer is not directly the Government, all of the funding comes from the Government,” Heap said of the Australian case. “They [employers] argued they needed time to make the adjustments to funding.”

While it is unrealistic to expect sizeable wage increases to be implemented instantly, the “elongated time period” in Australia had led to unwanted consequences for workers and the industry, she said.

“What’s happened in some places is that the employers have taken the funding increase and they haven’t allocated the money to wages. It’s actually gone into administrative costs or other things.” A complicated implementation process, which once completed will include nine wage-hikes over the allocated eight-year period, has led to confusion over where workers fitted on the pay scale.

“That’s allowed for employers to not employ people on the rates they should be and to convince them they are getting the wage increases they should be getting,” Heap said. “Now, the job of the unions is actually prosecuting where they find out that employers are not actually paying people appropriately.

Heap said while it was important not to understate the positive impacts of the 2012 decision in Australia for workers, the difficulties in navigating the roll-out needed to be examined by unions and policy makers in New Zealand.

“I spoke to some workers just last week and they said that their wages had increased by $12,000 per annum since the decision came in. To them, that’s the difference in staying and working in this area, or seeking out a Government job somewhere else where they get a higher salary.”

“However, where Government makes the funding available for the wage increase, they must have mechanisms in place to ensure that the money is directed towards the wage increase and is not absorbed by individual organisations into other costs.”

Attitudes within the care and community sectors that could hinder progress also had to be monitored, Heap said.

“There’s always been a problem in this area of work … because [organisations] are driven towards service delivery, so they put funding back into service delivery as opposed to it being put towards wages in the way that it should have been.

“At the end of the day, this is rectifying a historical undervaluation of the work that has been there. If there are other reasons why funding is inadequate in an area, organisations need to advocate for that for increases, and not see this as an opportunity to absorb that money and expose problems and not deliver it to the workers,” she said.

Ongoing community support, which helped Bartlett’s case and contributed to this week’s historic announcement, must also continue – particularly because the New Zealand Government’s acceptance of gender pay equity principles last year, which established the process for handling equal remuneration cases, had opened up significant opportunities to address gender pay inequity. Australia had not yet managed to do this, Heap noted.

“What Australia’s told us is that it’s not an inevitable flow-on unless you actually have an appropriate mechanism to address this – what we’ve got is employers who continue to argue every technical point to stop it happening elsewhere. It’s a system in Australia that hasn’t adequately addressed a mechanism to make this easier.”

“If people walk away thinking it’ll be fixed now, it won’t be. They have to keep pushing really hard for it.

“It’s important to recognise, and it was the same in the Australian space, that where these areas are Government-funded, the role that the community plays in supporting the workers to say: ‘Yes, we want this work, this work is important work to be done, and it should be valued properly,’ is really significant,” Heap said.

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