Community social services workers call for equal pay

Staff at prominent not-for-profit organisations say they are paid less than they deserve because they are mostly women.

Public Service Association members at social service providers Barnados, Wellington Sexual Abuse HELP, Christchurch Methodist Mission, Stand for Children and Ngāpuhi Iwi Social Services have filed equal pay claims with their employers, arguing their work is undervalued and urgently in need of more funding.

The workers say they are encouraged by 30 percent increases won in a 2018 pay equity claim the PSA negotiated for social workers employed by Oranga Tamariki, and other pay equity settlements the union achieved for workers in the care and support, mental health and addiction sectors.

Social service providers currently receive the majority of their funding from the government, with private donations covering the shortfall.

"These workers deal every day with complex and difficult situations, whether it’s helping families in crisis or supporting survivors of physical and sexual abuse, but they struggle to pay household bills," says Kerry Davies, National Secretary of the PSA.

"Their employers tell us funding constraints prevent them from paying staff according to their levels of skill and responsibility. We say our members are worth 100%, and they shouldn’t have to rattle buckets to get it."

The PSA argues this funding model results in a constant state of financial insecurity for organisations many New Zealanders rely on in time of need, undermining their ability to pay staff a fair and competitive salary.

Jacqueline Aberdein-Tapuai is a school social worker from Wainuiomata, a PSA union delegate and a mother of four teenage children.

She loves her job and feels respected by her employer, but says she struggles to afford school fees on her income.

"I’m a qualified and registered social worker with a Master’s degree, I’m responsible for more than 600 kids, and I earn about the same amount as I did twenty years ago working in a frontline role for a bank," she says.

"I went into this profession to help my community, not to get rich, but after seven years on the job I’m still paid at a graduate level. If my work is undervalued, it makes me worry the people I help aren’t properly valued either."

Every one of Mrs Aberdein-Tapuai’s immediate colleagues are women, as were 83.8% of registered social workers in 2018. A wealth of evidence has emerged from the previous Oranga Tamariki case indicating the entire social work profession is undervalued based on gender, not just by particular employers.

She says significant pay disparities exist in the community social services sector, between those employed by different organisations and within the workplace between different roles.

A community NGO social worker typically earns about $50,000 a year, substantially less than those with the same qualifications are paid elsewhere to perform similar tasks - often while working alongside their lower paid counterparts.

"I don’t think people know what it’s like, they assume we’re quite well paid," says Mrs Aberdein-Tapuai.

"All I want is to feel valued and recognised by the government and by my peers."

Two separate pay equity claims have been filed with the five NGOs, covering social workers and non-social worker staff respectively.

The PSA has spent many years campaigning for the government to fully fund social service providers.

"The government relies on these organisations and their staff to address serious community problems, often using highly specialised skills," says Ms Davies.

"The law does not allow female workers to continue being underpaid and undervalued, and the only way forward is if the government provides enough funding to fix the problem."