The Minister for Women says nurses and midwives are underpaid and undervalued but the Health Minister is upfront that not all health worker salary expectations can be met.

Health Minister David Clark says he understands nurses’ and other health workers’ hopes for better salaries under the new Government, but the reality is that “not everyone’s expectations will be met”.

He was responding to questions from Nursing Review and online health hub Health Central about New Zealand Nurses Organisation members rejecting the 20 district health boards’ pay offer of roughly two per cent a year, amidst expectations that the incoming Government may be more open to funding a more “respectful” offer.

Minister for Women Julie Anne Genter, who is also Associate Minister of Health (but in that capacity has no responsibility for wage settlements), says she is aware that nurses’ expectations are high and meeting everybody’s expectations poses “fiscal challenges” as there is a lot of investment that the new Government needs to catch up on.

Clark said he would not comment on the negotiations, which are due to go to mediation at the end of the month – with NZNO not ruling out industrial action if a better offer was not reached – or pre-empt the mediation outcomes.

“But I can understand firstly why those nurses might have hopes of better things.  This is a government that wants to see a more sustainable health sector. We don’t intend to run it down like our predecessors did. We want to ensure there are healthy workplaces and safe staffing and more sustainable funding over time.”

He said he needed to better understand why the NZNO negotiating team thought the initial pay offer would be accepted by members and why it was rejected.

“But the public also has an expectation based on the priorities outlined and the promises made that there will be more services delivered.”

“So the money that we pledged to put into healthcare won’t all go into salary raises,” said Clark. “Not everyone’s expectations will be met. I think that is the reality and I think we need to be upfront about that. But a Labour Government recognises the need to have a sustainably funded workforce and the need to make sure we have safe staffing and healthy workplaces.”

Nurses and midwives underpaid

Genter said as Minister for Women her number one priority was new pay equity legislation and working to close the gender pay gap in the public service.

“Female-dominated professions like midwives and nurses have structurally lower pay,” said Genter. “Those professions have been underpaid and undervalued because they are female-dominated.”

She said where there were MECAs (multi-employer collective agreements) for specialists or doctors the gender pay gap had disappeared, because so many more women were pursuing medicine and becoming specialists.

“But across the health workforce it is not necessarily the case and there is still more work to be done to rectify the pay gap.” She is aware of the NZNO’s pay equity claim for its DHB nurses, midwives and health care assistants. She said such pay equity claims are not her responsibility alone, but as Minister for Women she is working with other ministers on pay equity legislation to progress such claims (see below).

“Obviously this government is very supportive of closing the gender pay gap and lifting pay for the lowest paid workers, and valuing all of the professions that add so much to life in Aotearoa – we can’t do without them.”

Genter, in her role as Associate Minister of Health, spoke to Health Central about her two new delegations for health – population health (built environment) and climate change – along with women’s health, sexual health and disability services.

Next step to new pay equity legislation

This week Genter, in her role as Minister for Women, and Iain Lees-Galloway, the Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety, announced the reconvening of the Joint Working Group on Pay Equity Principles as the first step to new pay equity legislation.

The original group was set up in 2015 to develop principles to guide pay equity implementation, but Galloway said these principles had been ‘undermined’ by the pay equity bill introduced in July last year by the former government, which would have made pay equity claims tougher for women. The bill was scrapped by the incoming government in November.

The new working group has been charged with considering the issues around how to determine the merit of a pay equity claim and how to select appropriate male comparative professions/trades to compare the pay rates of women workers who lodge pay equity claims.

The group, facilitated by Traci Houpapa, meets today, January 24, and is due to make its recommendations to Ministers by the end of February. “Once we receive the recommendations, we will work to develop pay equity legislation which we expect to introduce mid-2018,” said Genter.

The tripartite partners include government representatives, unions (led by the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions) and employers (led by BusinessNZ and the Employers and Manufacturers Association).