Karanina Sumeo: It's time to end the secrecy over unequal pay

Karanina Sumeo: It's time to end the secrecy over unequal pay

International Women's Day is a time to reflect on how far we've come in valuing, respecting and honouring the dignity of the women in our homes, communities, workplaces.

While we are doing better than some countries, gender equality remains an unachieved goal.

This International Women's Day, I'm calling on New Zealand to accelerate progress towards gender equality by ending pay secrecy. The inability to compare pay between two people of different sex, for work of equal value, is a major obstacle to gender equality.

The Equal Pay Act makes it unlawful to refuse to offer the same pay, terms of employment, training, promotion based on the sex of a person. However, the lack of data to compare salaries and wages makes it difficult to bring an equal pay claim against an employer, because employees don't have access to this information.

Ending the gender pay gap is particularly important for closing the economic gap for women at the bottom of the ladder, including Māori, Pacific, disabled, and ethnic minority women.

The pay gap for these women's groups is much wider than the often reported 9 per cent for women generally, compared with men.

I have had experience of the gender pay gap for Pacific women. In a previous position, I found out that I was paid on a different salary scale than colleagues in a very similar role. The top end of the salary scale I was on was about $40,000 lower than the one being used for those in a similar role.

I challenged and convinced management, the human resources team, and the relevant union of my equal pay claim.

The whole process took about five to six months for the amended pay scale to come into effect. The positive impact on the wellbeing of my children, and peace of mind for a single mother, was significant.

My concern is that women less aware of their rights, unfamiliar with the system, struggling with English, with limited literacy, desperate to hold onto their jobs, or with low confidence, may struggle to remedy the situation, with or without a union to support them.

We have a duty under international and domestic human rights law to ensure equal pay for work of equal value. This is not a right women should be left to bargain for without the tools they need – including data about the gender pay gap in their workplace.

If we want to ensure women are not being discriminated against when it comes to their salary, wages and progression, then the Government needs to include pay transparency in legislation.

We are far behind other developed countries. Australian companies have been reporting this information annually to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency since 2012. The United Kingdom brought in legislation requiring companies to report their gender pay gap in 2018. They are now debating whether to require companies to also report on their ethnic pay gap.

In 2018, Iceland enacted a law that required both public and private organisations with more than 25 employees to be audited annually and prove that they provide equal pay to men and women. Iceland's gender pay gap was between 14 and 22 per cent in 2015. With this new law, its government hopes to close the gap by 2022.

Our Government's Equal Pay Amendment Bill is currently before a parliamentary select committee. The bill's purpose is to enact the recommendations of the Reconvened Joint Working Group that was set up after the successful campaign to address pay inequity for aged-care workers, who are predominantly female.

I believe the bill needs to be made stronger by including pay transparency. In addition, the Government needs to establish an independent body to ensure transparency in reporting about pay equity. This body would receive transparency reports and provide information and resource services to employees for potential pay equity issues.

Making pay transparent means employees in companies with more than 100 people know what their colleagues, and those in similar occupations, are being paid.

Pay secrecy has allowed women to be underpaid for 45 years, since the Equal Pay Act was made law in 1972. It reinforces racial biases and often hides structural inequalities. If wages and salaries are made transparent, it simply becomes harder to hide.

It's time for New Zealand to end the secrecy. Add your name in support.

This first appeared in the Dominion Post on the 8th of March.