As the Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner, Saunoamaali‘i Karanina Sumeo is leading the push for pay equity in Aotearoa. She’s working not just to close the gender pay gap, but also the significant ethnic pay gap which puts Pacific women and men at the bottom of the pay ladder.
And not only does she have a mountain of data to make her case, but she also has firsthand experience as a Pacific woman who’s had to fight for pay equity for herself in a former role.
“How dare they.”
It was the first thing that came to mind when I found out my colleagues were getting paid up to $40,000 more than me.
I’d been looking through the collective agreement and the roles it covered. And I noticed that my role was there, but several of my colleagues who had similar roles to me weren’t. So I took it up with my manager.
I asked: “Why aren’t these roles on the agreement?” And they said: “Oh, they’re on a different scale. They’re on the management scale.” I asked to see the pay scale. And that’s when I discovered how huge the difference was.
I felt angry and disrespected. I was good at my job — professionally, I was near the peak. I had the same qualifications and level of expertise as my colleagues, and our roles were almost identical.
The only difference was that we were working with different groups in the community. I had a Pacific-specific role that had been set up to get better outcomes for Pacific people.
By paying much less for this role, my employer was effectively saying that our community was of less value. And I wanted to make the point that they should honour the work, honour the people that the work is for, recognise my expertise and cultural skills — and just do the right thing.
When I challenged it, no one could explain it, not even the union. There was a kind of unconsciousness around it. It honestly didn’t occur to people that this was inequitable.
Of course, I asked for it to be addressed — urgently. And I did get the pay rise, although it took about six months — and I insisted that it was backdated.
It was around $300 more in my hand every fortnight, and it made a huge difference for our family.
At the time, I was a solo parent of three school-aged children. The extra money helped with things like school fees and uniforms, and the extra cost of getting them to sport on Saturdays. It meant my kids could have experiences without the worry that it would put a strain on our finances. I could help support my siblings in Sāmoa.
The benefits weren’t just material. It lifted a weight off my shoulders. It changed our lives for the better in every way.
‘We’ve been consistently at the bottom’
I became the Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner in 2018, a five-year term, and one of my priorities is eliminating pay inequity based on ethnicity.
The ethnic pay gap gets much less attention than the gender pay gap. But when we focus on lifting pay averages based on gender, we’re really just looking at the disparity between Pākehā men and women. It ignores men of Pacific, Māori, Asian ethnicity who are earning less, on average, than Pākehā women.
In Aotearoa, the lowest income earners are Pacific women and men. On average, Pacific women earn about 27 percent less than Pākehā men. For Pacific men, the pay gap is about 24 percent.
Next are Māori women, who earn about 23 percent less than Pākehā men, while the gap is about 20 percent for Māori men.
Pākehā women have the smallest pay disparity, earning on average about six percent less than Pākehā men.
In December 2020, we launched the Pacific Pay Gap inquiry, and since then we’ve heard many stories from Pacific workers about how they’re treated differently and often paid less. We’ve also heard about the inequity experienced by workers from other marginalised communities.
The inquiry has given us a clear but painful picture of the people and families behind the statistics. It has also shown the pervasiveness of pay inequity across industries and over time.
Research shows the gap between Pacific and Pākehā has stayed at the same level for about 10 years. We’ve been consistently at the bottom.
One man told us that he’d been in the same job for more than 20 years and was getting just over $30,000. When he told the company that he was leaving, they offered him a pay rise of a couple of thousand dollars. He wasn’t keen on that, so the company recruited his replacement and he helped to train them. The new employee said to him: “I can’t believe you’re leaving this fantastic job with this great salary.”
So he asked him: “What salary are you on?” And it turned out his replacement was getting $30,000 more.
This is not an uncommon experience. And the consequences of this persistent inequity are profound and far-reaching.
We know, for instance, that Pacific children are overrepresented in poverty statistics — and that’s directly related to their parents’ lower incomes and lack of of equal employment opportunities.
It affects family dynamics. Trying to make ends meet with much less means many Pacific parents take on extra work and jobs, which gives them less time at home with their children. Basics like family time, being “present”, or helping with homework are sacrificed.
And there are other flow-on effects for young Pacific people. They’ll often work while they’re still at school to help support their family, which puts pressure on their ability to succeed academically. Sometimes, they’ll end up leaving school early because their family needs the extra income. Often that takes away the path to their dream job, and makes it harder for them to get ahead.
So, fundamentally, the ethnic pay gap penalises not just individual workers, but also their families. It’s why we urgently need mandatory measures to address it.
‘How can you fix something you’re trying not to see?’
This starts with pay transparency in workplaces, and data collection around the ethnicity of employees.
A lot of places we engage with tell us they don’t have an ethnic pay gap. But when we ask for the data on their organisation, they don’t have it.
To which I say: “How can you address and fix something you’re trying not to see?”
Pay inequity thrives when there’s no transparency. When there’s no clear oversight and no one is keeping tabs on what’s happening. That was the case with me. Not even my colleagues who were getting paid more than me knew what was happening. We were friends, but it wasn’t something we’d talked about. But our bosses and the human resources people knew, and they clearly thought it was acceptable.
The inquiry has also highlighted the complexity of some of the issues around the Pacific pay gap. We looked at three main industries — construction, manufacturing and healthcare — and found different ways pay disparity persisted.
In construction, racial bias and language barriers make it hard for workers to get better pay in larger companies, but there are also a lot of formal credentials needed to move up the pay ladder. Pacific workers struggle to find the time to get these because they tend to have heavy family commitments. Or they’re simply not given the opportunity to try.
A lot of Pacific workers also work for small and medium-sized companies, some as contractors or as casual workers through temp agencies. Pay can be at the lower end and there are fewer opportunities to progress, even if you’ve been contracted to the same company for years and want a permanent role.
In the healthcare workforce, we met Pacific workers who felt undervalued, particularly because of low wage rates. Professional credentials from Pacific countries are often not recognised, which again, limits wages. There are also few Pacific faces in management roles. And cultural skills, like being able to speak a Pacific language to communicate with patients — which Pacific workers are called on to use daily — are generally not recognised in renumeration.
In the manufacturing industry, job requirements are changing with technology, and opportunities to develop skills and maintain job security are limited — especially for older workers who’ve been with a company over many years.
The pay gap also persists in workplaces where Pacific workers feel unsafe or uncomfortable about asking for a pay rise, even if they know they deserve more.
When I pushed for pay parity at my old job, I was doing it from a position of power. I was educated, had the data, and knew my rights. I also knew I could walk into another job. But many Pacific workers don’t have that security. They have limited job options and need their income to put food on the table and keep a roof over their head. They simply don’t have the same bargaining power I did.
The hidden barriers to pay equity
I often hear people say that Pacific people’s pay gap is due to Pacific people’s circumstances and choices. And it’s true that career choice, experience, and qualification levels can play a part.
But the evidence coming out of the inquiry shows that’s not the whole story.
We need only look at what’s happening in the public sector, where Pacific men and women have the lowest pay rates. Here, the research offers quite good insight into the problem. It shows that for Pacific men, only about 27 percent of the ethnic pay gap can be attributed to job and personal characteristics. For Pacific women, it’s about 39 percent.
In other words, the bulk of the pay gap for Pacific can’t be explained by the factors we can see, like qualifications and experience. So that leaves the invisible barriers — discrimination and bias. The inquiry has found that these are the hidden blocks to equity.
As I told a select committee recently, the solutions to sexism aren’t the same as the solutions to racism. So we need a focus on ethnic inequities.
It’s why our work through the inquiry, and our focus on pay transparency and getting organisations to collect data around gender, ethnicity and disability, are so critical to making progress in this area. Once you have the data, you can clearly see where the gaps are, and then address them.
It also means employers and workplaces can be held to account for pay inequity and unequal treatment of employees. The ethnic pay gap will only shift when those in these positions of power take responsibility for their role in it and make changes.
This is something we’re doing at the Commission. As a result of collecting data around ethnicity and pay, a number of staff have had pay increases — without having to complain or ask for it. That process included recognising cultural competence where appropriate. We’ve also changed our recruitment process — now all job advertisements state the salary so there’s no mystery around pay.
We’ve also made some progress around the wider issue of pay inequity. In March, the education and workforce select committee recommended that the government develop pay transparency measures. I also recommended that the measures be mandatory, and to look specifically at the pay of Pasifika and disabled people — those worst affected by pay disparity in Aotearoa. In August, we’ll also be presenting our findings from the Pacific Pay Gap inquiry to parliament.
But what we really need is for all ethnic pay gap measures to be implemented urgently. We need essential workers to be paid wages that actually reflect how valuable they are. There needs to be fair and meaningful access to training opportunities for Pacific workers — especially on-the-job training. We also need full recognition for the language and cultural knowledge we use every day in our jobs.
For many Pacific families, those changes will be the difference between surviving and thriving — and that’s something we all deserve.
As told to Teuila Fuatai. This piece was made possible by NZ On Air through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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