Point of view: From both sides of the ditch – the battle for equal pay

By Lisa Heap, adjunct professor, Australian Catholic University.

A poster from a European equal pay campaign

A poster from a European equal pay campaign

Australia and New Zealand both have a long history of limited successful action on pay equity. The landmark equal pay case for Australia’s social and community workers (SACS) and initial decisions in
New Zealand’s Kristine Bartlett and Service & Food Workers Union vs Terranova Homes & Care Ltd, however, have challenged that history. Both cases have centred on “care work” which has suffered from systemic undervaluation as it has been seen as an extension of women’s caring role in the home.

In Australia, before the SACS decision, there were limited opportunities to substantially improve the circumstances of care workers because the large number of small workplaces reduced the opportunity for workplace bargaining.

In New Zealand, whilst “bargaining” occurs it has either been for individual contracts, where the labour price has been set by the employer, or where collective contracts have achieved only incremental increases in wages.

In both countries, the reliance of organisations on government funding, set at rates that rely on low labour costs, has placed an effective ceiling on wages for care workers.  

Despite the problems identified above, Australia’s award systems have maintained a level of collectivism not present within New Zealand. This has protected the Australian minimum wage from the collapse that has occurred in New Zealand. There are a couple of things to note regarding this: Firstly, the Australian award systems provide a vehicle for changes in wages for workers collectively in a way not readily available in New Zealand (unless class action cases become the norm). Secondly, in New Zealand the collapse in the minimum wage has meant the gap between male and female wages has converged not because of advancement in pay equity, but because of the reduction in remuneration of male workers.  

Legislation is another area of difference. Australian legislation that provides for pay equity has moved away from “equal pay for equal work” towards “equal pay for equal or comparable value”. It does not rely on discrimination as the foundation for proving inequity, but rather has adopted the framework of undervaluation.

By comparison, in New Zealand the legislation has remained virtually the same since the introduction of the Equal Pay Act 1972. Even with these differences in legislation, however, the New Zealand Court’s interpretation of the Act means that the differences between Australia and New Zealand are not as great as they first appear. For example, New Zealand’s Court recognises the need to look at historical undervaluation as a subset of the consideration of what is equal pay. It still relies heavily, however, on the need to use male comparators to prove pay inequity – something that, at least in Queensland, is no longer required.  


The SACS and Terranova cases have started a movement that has raised awareness of the undervaluation of care work and the gendered nature of this undervaluation. They have also demonstrated that even legislation considered dormant or seemingly passed its “use by” date can provide a catalyst for real social change.

Success, however, is not likely to come without workers standing up and claiming their rights, committed union actions, community support, political pressure to secure funding, and evidence from academics and other experts.

Lisa is the PSA’s equal pay advisor.