‘We’re all women who work damn hard. And we’re all underpaid.’ Union member speaks out about her equal pay legal challenge in New Zealand

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Service and Food Workers Union member Kristine Bartlett talks to Aged Care and Retirement magazine Insight about what drove her to head up the Equal Pay case currently before the courts in New Zealand.

‘First off it’s important to say how much I love my work. I look at the “girls” I work with and I know how hard they work and the fact that they are making a difference everyday for the residents. That’s special. Every day we work small miracles. But I also know how hard it is for many of the staff. The ones who are the main income earner for their families and the ones whose pay barely covers the rent. I see the girls who are desperate for more hours or an extra shift and for who every cent is precious.

And I know that it’s not just an issue at my work. I know there are thousands of carers in the same boat. I know how hard they work. It takes a special sort of person to work in aged care and when I look around at the interest the court case has generated I realise there’s a hunger for recognition out there.

Now here I am in the middle of a court case that’s essentially about respect. A year ago I’d have laughed if someone had said I’d have my photo in the paper and on badges but now I’m comfortable with that because as well as looking after the residents, “my darlings” as I call them, I know the case has given hope to women just like me. We’ve spent our lives being undervalued and while I don’t regret the career I’ve chosen and the path I’ve taken, I do regret that it’s been nearly 50 years since the law changed and in that 50 years we’ve not spoken out sooner.

In August I’ll have worked for 21 years at our facility and while I’ve always known carers were undervalued it’s only been in recent years that I’ve taken a stronger interest in the reasons behind it. Now that I think about it, it’s clear that this idea that some jobs are “women’s’ work” has been behind the undervaluing and the underfunding of the sector. What’s amazing is that it’s taken till now for a legal challenge to be made.

When the Human Rights Caring Counts report came out in 2012, like a lot of others, I was thrilled to hear Judy McGregor lift the lid on the sector. She said what we’ve known for years but it takes someone to speak out. And it was really interesting to see employers also supporting the recommendations of the report. That made it easier for me when Penny Clark from the SFWU approached me and said my union was looking for someone to take a test case. I went home and thought about it and talked with my family and friends and they said “go for it.”

By then the Caring Counts report had been around for about a year. But to be honest nothing had changed for the workers. The pay was still too low and the government had turned its back on the report and its recommendations – all of which seemed pretty obvious and pretty sensible.

And the funny thing is despite all the different organisations in the sector, from Grey Power to the Aged Care Association, came out and said the report was good and needed to be acted on nothing changed. So, that left the court case.

Because of the support from my union (the Service and Food Workers Union) I’ve grown in my confidence but to start with I was pretty nervous. In fact I still am. Going to court is a huge step but I’ve been overwhelmed with the support. I’ve spent days sitting in court rooms, attending briefings and reading the piles of legal papers that are used. When I arrived at the court in Auckland there were all these women with a banner that said “Caregivers thank you ” – and it was all so exciting.

And then sitting watching the lawyers in the Employment Court and then later in the Court of Appeal I wondered how many of them had family or friends in care. Whether they understood what goes on in a home for the darlings who may have no visits from their family and whose only regular contact is with staff. What it’s like to go home so tired you can’t cook, collapse into bed and be back caring a few hours later. As the case has developed I’ve had my share of frustration, especially when the judges have been asking questions and I’ve wanted to stand up and answer them!

And part of me, just a small part, is a bit sad. Sad that the aged care industry is apparently so ready to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight the Employment Court decision when they could be working with their staff to fix the problem and sort out the funding it will take to deliver equal pay.

For me the case has moved beyond Terra Nova – in fact it’s been good to see Terry Bell (Terra Nova CEO) sit in on the case. Now it’s really about how the Government responds. I’m still trying to work out why the DHB or the Ministry of Health weren’t there at the first hearing and how the Government lawyers can now turn up and say that all of a sudden they have to be heard.

And now we are all waiting for the judges’ decision and it turns out that I’m busier than ever. Every week I’m meeting with other carers and other union members sharing my experience and sharing stories. Their stories are mine.

We’re all women who work damn hard. And we’re all underpaid. The difference is that we are speaking out and standing up. Hundreds of other carers have already joined the case and with the election due this year we are looking beyond the court.

Because whatever the decision and whatever the final outcome the lid has been lifted. In Auckand the lawyer for Business NZ said the case was like opening Pandora’s Box as if that was a terrible thing when in fact it was well past time to lift the lid.

Well the box is sure open now. And it’s not going to close.’

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Find out more about UNI affiliate the Service and Food Workers’ Union

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