Progress towards equal pay looks to be within grasp of other
groups of women workers, and support workers employed by the Ministry of Education could be among the first to reap the fruits of many years of bargaining, legal action and political campaigning.
Movement on the issue of the gender pay gap between men and women has been spearheaded by the case of caregiver Kristine Bartlett, and recently by a union campaign Treat her Right calling for the “sisters to be paid the same as the misters”. Male workers in New Zealand earn 12 percent more per hour, on average, than female workers.
Mediation between NZEI Te Riu Roa and the Ministry of Education is the latest opportunity to progress the NZEI claim led by support workers Denise Tetzlaff, Kathleen Power and Mary Jones, on behalf of several hundred colleagues. More than six years ago an independent job evaluation report by the Pay Equity Commission showed that when compared with the male dominated job of corrections officers, support workers employed by the Ministry of Education were paid as much as $8 an hour less.
The Government has agreed to use new pay equity principles, developed in partnership with unions and employers, for the first time in the NZEI pay claim. They intend to introduce legislation to enact those principles – that should make it easier for women to progress pay equity with their employers, rather than having to go through the courts.
Among the support workers who would benefit from a move to equal pay, is Hutt Valley education support worker (ESW) Jacoline Brink, who has a unique perspective on the NZEI equal pay claim. Jacoline has an everyday insight into the male-dominated comparator used in the claim – her husband works as a corrections officer.
The couple migrated from South Africa to make a new start with their young family, and Jacoline’s passion for education grew with her involvement in her own sons’ kindergarten. “I wanted to study early childhood education, but going into debt was not an option with a young family and hoping to own our own home,” says Jacoline.
Qualifying to become a teacher aide, and then taking on work as an ESW working alongside children requiring additional learning support in early childhood education was a good alternative for Jacoline. “Becoming an ESW gave me the chance to do the work I love with pre-school children, without having to take on a big student loan.”
There was one problem, however – money. Despite doing skilled work with children with complex needs, and having to adapt to different teaching teams and cultures in kindergartens and ECE centres, the maximum hourly rate for support workers is $19.48 – less than the living wage of $20.20 per hour.
And how about the comparison with corrections officers? Jacoline said at first she found it strange. “But the longer I thought about it the more I saw it as a good comparator. We’re both working in jobs that are difficult, with challenging behaviour, and both jobs make a huge difference to people’s lives.”
In her family life, Jacoline sees that her husband has opportunities to progress that support workers don’t share. “There’s not only a higher hourly rate, but also the opportunity to progress with training and experience. They can work their way up and we can’t.”
“Support workers have ambitions and goals too. We work to better the child and better the work of the Ministry. But we’re not valued as it’s seen as women’s work and this does have an impact on our morale.”
For Jacoline’s family, low pay means they too often live pay cheque to pay cheque. “Owning our own home is still a goal of ours, but the problem is my pay. The bank’s view is that I don’t have a proper job, and the pay is too low to qualify for a mortgage.”
Far from not having a “proper job” Jacoline says support workers are hard working professionals who bring life experience and empathy to the important work they do.
She shares a story of an invite to the fifth birthday party of a child she worked with – one of her challenging first contacts. “The family introduced me, and everyone knew who I was and the contribution I had made to this boy’s life. Guests were greeting me – ‘Oh you’re the famous Jacoline’. I was laughing, but these families know the difference we make. I learned to speak up for their child as I would for my own sons.
“It takes a special person to do this job. We’re nothing flash but we do something big. This equal pay claim is us being bold enough to say we’re important. A boost to achieve equal pay would show us that we are seen, we are heard, and we are valued.”
NZEI has also begun discussion with the Ministry of Education about utilising the principles to progress pay equity for school support staff, starting with the thousands of teacher aides who support learning throughout New Zealand.