Professor Judy McGregor: More progress on women's rights needed

08 Mar, 2017
Professor Judy McGregor

Women’s discontent with gender inequality is on the rise. Today (March 8th) thousands of women will celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD). It will be a bitter sweet celebration. We will welcome women’s increasing advancement in education, health, and the workplace. But we will also lament stalled progress on gender equality in New Zealand at a time when women globally are knitting pink “pussy hats” and have taken protest back to the streets.

The hiatus in progressing women’s rights in New Zealand takes place against a backdrop of public complacency and a general political malaise about implementing gender equality which has pushed women’s rights back to the margins.

Today parliament is scheduled to debate Green MP Jan Logie’s Domestic Violence Victim’s Protection Bill which provides 10 days paid leave to victims. Up until the last minute, the Government did not support the bill claiming the extra leave would carry significant costs. In a change of heart late yesterday, Justice Minister Amy Adams tweeted her support saying, “the bill needs work but there are issues worth discussing” - there are still obstacles to overcome if it is to pass into law without being watered down.

As for the government’s claim on the cost, this has not been the experience of the ANZ, who introduced a similar special leave to staff 18 months ago and says it costs little and costs are outweighed by benefit.

The government has also suggested the bill duplicates existing employment and health and safety legislation and that organisations such as The Warehouse are doing it anyway. So what’s the problem?  Even Business New Zealand indicated the bill should go to select committee so small business could have a say. And while it is good news that it will now support the bill, the government continues to undermine the rights of women in other areas. For example, the extraordinary step by the Prime Minister Bill English, while Finance Minister, to use the Government’s power of financial veto and effectively kill off an extension of paid parental leave to 26 weeks. The Finance Minister also had to admit he got his maths wrong when citing the high cost as the reasons for his lack of support.  The spectre of financial costs are the retreat of governments who lack the will to implement women’s human rights.

Progress on equal pay is probably the most potent example of rhetoric not matching reality.

The Government has yet to provide aged care workers or the many thousands of other low paid female workers in the public and community sectors with a single cent more in equal pay settlements. It is now five years since the Caring Counts report from the New Zealand Human Rights Commission described age care work as a form of modern day slave labour, and four years since Lower Hutt aged care worker, Kristine Bartlett, emerged as the face of the union equal pay case.

Not that successive Governments are the only villains. A recent analysis of private age care provider annual reports reveals some extraordinary pay gaps.  One major provider admits that its chief executive receives 21.7 times the remuneration of an average employee. In general, publicly listed aged care providers are making startling profits and receiving increased government subsidies while at the same time keeping carers’ wages at the minimum.

There is widespread support for the agreement between employers, unions and the Government to a set of joint principles that will help women lodge complaints about equal pay. But the slowness of the process means that justice delayed is justice denied.  While the Government talks of a jump start to the use of the principles, there has yet been no corresponding jump start in female pay packets.

There have yet to be settlements in aged care and many other sectors where low paid women are fighting for justice. Another equal pay process and another set of principles are underway. However, on IWD 2017 equal pay and pay equity for thousands of New Zealand women is as elusive as it has been for the past 50 years. Show us the money as well as the principles will be the call from women in an election year.

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