Equal pay: Demanding justice for social workers


The PSA has just launched a legal case seeking equal pay for social workers after years of this workforce being underpaid because it is dominated by women.

worth 100 logoThe historic litigation has been filed in the Employment Relations Authority in Wellington under the Equal Pay Act 1972 and asks the ERA to set the equal pay rate for social workers.

The applicants in the case are the PSA and three social worker PSA members who represent social workers at Child, Youth and Family.

The case for the applicants is that they are underpaid because of the historical tendency of successive governments to undervalue women’s skills and the work they do, and instead rely on their commitment and love of the job.This includes not properly accounting for what are seen as the “inherent” attributes of women like caring, empathy and the ability to understand the reasons for the feelings and behaviours of others through interpreting unspoken or partially expressed thoughts.

Demanding work

Social workers have weighty responsibilities to deal with vulnerable babies, children and young people, often in tense and difficult situations. They share responsibility for important decisions about custody, care and welfare of babies, children and young people suffering from abuse and neglect. Social workers are also required to keep extensive records and need to be prepared for legal and public scrutiny of the decisions they make.

The PSA’s position is that the pay rate does not reflect the intense and continuous physical, mental and emotional effort required to be a social worker. The PSA’s case is that social workers are currently paid significantly less than they would be paid if they were men considering their skills, responsibility and the effort required to do the work.

The time is now

Social workers have been seeking equal pay for years and while there is recognition from their employer that the role is highly stressful, as well as emotionally and physically demanding – equal pay has still not been achieved. This is why PSA members overwhelmingly endorsed a resolution that the PSA take this legal action to seek equal pay for social workers.

Through this legal action social workers are sending a clear message to the government that they will not tolerate being underpaid and undervalued because the work they do for the next generation is too important. 

Next steps

The PSA will not be pursuing the legal case immediately. First we are trying to reach agreement with the government about the implementation of equal pay through the Working Group to Establish Principles for Equal Pay, which the government has established. PSA national secretary Erin Polaczuk is a member of the working group. 

If the working group does not achieve equal pay for social workers, the PSA will progress this litigation through the ERA and, if necessary, the Employment Court.

While the case is filed against the Ministry of Social Development, any outcome that examines the work of social workers and what the equal pay rate is will have flow-on effects for social workers in district health boards and in the community.