After nearly two years, the Pacific Pay Gap Inquiry has released its final report. Teuila Fuata’i looks at the findings.
One of the most disheartening things made clear by the Pacific pay gap inquiry is how normal it is for Pacific people to be devalued and minimised in our workplaces.
For too many of our Pacific workers, the reality has been that no matter how hard they work, and no matter their qualifications and expertise, they simply aren’t given the same pay or opportunities in the workplace as a Pālagi person in a similar position.
Over and over again, Pacific workers told the inquiry of their experiences of being paid significantly less than others who were doing similar work to them. They spoke of being shocked, hurt and confused when they eventually found out what the disparity was — and when they realised that even after they’d given their all, and showed loyalty, diligence, and respect, they were worth literally thousands of dollars less to their employers than others doing a similar job.
It’s well known that Pacific women are at the bottom of the pay ladder, and Pacific men are not much better off. At the top, it’s Pākehā men, followed by Pākehā women. When the numbers are crunched, the average annual pay gap between Pākehā men and Pacific women is $24,671. For Pacific men, it’s $19,500. On average, we’re also lower paid than Asian and Māori workers.
That adds up over a working lifetime. Between Pākehā men and Pacific women, the average income gap amounts to nearly half a million dollars ($488,310 to be precise). For Pacific men, it’s $400,368.
That’s a lot of money that our families and communities are missing out on. We simply have less money to live on.
The inquiry report shows too that being better educated and in a higher-paid job doesn’t protect Pacific workers — systemic inequity for Pacific persisted across different roles, experience levels and qualifications.
Initially, it was intended that the inquiry would focus on the manufacturing, construction, and healthcare sectors — where many Pacific people work — but it ended up hearing from people in all different areas of the workforce. That range of engagement meant the patterns of inequity it identified showed what happened in workplaces throughout New Zealand.
Overall, nearly 1200 Pacific workers, 40 employers, and four unions took part in the inquiry.
One of the clearest examples of pay inequity was a man in his early 50s who’d worked for the same employer, a government department, for most of his adult life.
He started with the employer when he finished high school. At the time, his parents were supporting him and his brother, and several extended family members. His parents worked four jobs between them to make ends meet. The man had wanted to go to university, but he knew he had “to do something” to help.
When he started at the government department, the man’s job was to open and sort mail so it could be delivered around the building. He told the inquiry how it was deeply unsatisfying. He felt it wasn’t the kind of job his parents had wanted for him when they left the islands for a better life in New Zealand.
Despite that, the man persevered and worked in the role for several years. He remained through several restructures and was the only Pacific person in his team. Then, after helping a fellow Pacific worker in the department with a problem, the man’s skills were recognised, and he was promoted to an administrative role. He stayed there for another seven years, and then received another promotion.
But throughout that time, and despite the promotions, his employer never reviewed his performance or raised his pay.
Eventually, with his wife’s support, the man decided to leave. His employer offered him a bonus as an incentive to stay, but he turned it down. He was then asked to stay on long enough to train his replacement, and that’s when he found out that he was getting less than half of his replacement’s starting wage of $65,000. He was shocked. For more than 20 years, he’d remained on his original wage of just over $30,000 a year.
This man’s experience exemplifies the bias and discrimination Pacific workers face.
The inequity he experienced is a direct result of the double standard that slides in when Pacific workers are involved. Even after his employer decided he was valuable enough to try and keep, they still weren’t prepared to pay him as much as someone else doing the exact same job.
What’s also important to understand, and what the inquiry really unpacks, is how pay inequity is the final, and perhaps most measurable, result of the layers of bias and discrimination Pacific people face in workplaces.
So many experiences which aren’t acknowledged or recognised were picked up by the inquiry and linked to ongoing workplace inequity and the overall Pacific pay gap.
These include Pacific workers missing out on training opportunities, seeing colleagues and new employees with less experience promoted ahead of them without explanation, and taking on extra responsibilities, including cultural and language duties, without any real recognition or adjustment to their pay.
It’s commonplace for employers to not acknowledge these extra duties and barriers for Pacific. But it’s a pervasive attitude that only makes it harder for Pacific to progress in the workplace, and ultimately reinforces the pay gap.
For example, one worker in the social services sector talked about the pushback they got when asking about training opportunities. They also pointed out Pākehā staff members were given much better access to training opportunities in their workplace.
Being here for 10 years, I’ve become quite confident in asking for the training opportunities that I deserve. [But] there is always some sort of comment made such as: ‘I hope you’re not going to leave once you complete your qualification.’
I had also noticed over the years other colleagues, Pākehā or management staff, would have time allocated during the week for them to complete their study, and when I would ask about my study options, I would be told to put it in as annual leave, and we could negotiate how much of this would be study leave.
Another worker’s experience in the healthcare sector highlighted the lack of fair remuneration processes even after training took place.
Getting training opportunities has never been a problem.
However, getting paid for those opportunities is where things become a different story. I receive the training, but a promotion to follow is another story.
Threaded throughout the experiences of prejudice and inequity was a clear lack of knowledge among Pacific workers of their employment rights. And because employers aren’t legally required to be transparent about renumeration and workers’ rights, it was more difficult to call out unfair treatment.
Stories shared with the inquiry showed that many workers had a sense that they were being treated unfairly, but their lack of understanding around employment rights made it difficult for them to identify and clearly articulate that unfairness.
A group of workers talked about how they saw this contributing to workplace inequity:
We don’t have the confidence to go out and better ourselves and speak for ourselves. If we don’t know what our rights are, we are going to be taken for granted forever.
Even from an employer’s perspective, that lack of knowledge, and the power imbalance it was grounded in, was hard to ignore.
One employer told the inquiry that, in their experience, Pacific workers didn’t have the right information when it came to negotiating contracts, which often led to lower remuneration.
Pacific people when entering employment opportunities do not have the tools to be able to negotiate and are usually placed at the lower scale.
Another employer pointed to the role of the unions and the need for Pacific workers to have more support when bargaining with them.
I actually think if you’re talking about what would you do in this sector . . . and I can’t even believe it’s coming out of my mouth, I come from Australia where unions are really strong and powerful and quite militant — it’s weird to me that that is not happening here. . . .
We’ll just be perfectly blunt about it and we kind of get stuff, but sometimes I want to shake them and say: ‘These guys need a little bit of someone in their corner’. They’re not strong — it’s really strange, I find it strange, and it’s things like just giving people help when we bargain.
Maybe it’s that honesty and slight disbelief at the consistent unfairness of the status quo that will add to real change around the Pacific pay gap.
We already know bias and discrimination for Pacific in workplaces is part of life in New Zealand. We’ve seen family members and friends face it over the years and have had to deal with it ourselves.
But by bringing everything together, the inquiry shows how systemic that treatment is, and how it feeds the Pacific pay gap.
Addressing that systemic pay inequity means dismantling the practices which enable Pacific workers to be consistently undervalued and paid less. For that, the inquiry recommends legislative changes to specifically address ethnic pay gaps and make workplace remuneration practices transparent. It also recommends the minimum wage should be set at the living wage rate.
For the inquiry, it’s about removing the biggest barriers to equitable pay for Pacific. Otherwise, the pay gap will be around for at least another 100 years.
This piece was made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund through NZ On Air.
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