(Photo: RNZ/Eva Corlett)

“When people talk about pay transparency or secrecy, or pay gaps, or marginalised workers, it sounds abstract,” writes Kim Mcbreen. “But having less money isn’t abstract, it means we have fewer options. It means less for our whānau.”


I spent the last couple of nights looking for an article I read years ago about the Māori War Effort Organisation. I couldn’t remember anything about it — not where I saw it, not who wrote it, nothing except that it talked about how employees were paid. I finally found it late last night. It was an essay written by Claudia Orange, in a book published in 2001. 

And here’s the whole bit I was interested in. It’s where it says that, based on Māori values, “Twenty recruiting officers of various ranks were nominated but each was paid on an equal basis regardless of rank.” 

(In Claudia Orange’s master’s thesis she says that all the officers were given the rank of second lieutenant). 

So many hours searching for what turns out to be a single sentence, and all because of the Human Rights Commission’s campaign for pay transparency. 

Pay transparency means our employers tell us how they make decisions on pay and promotions, so we can see how fair those decisions are — and we know what to expect and what to ask for. It might help us decide where to work and for how long. 

It doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll know what everyone we work with is paid, but we’ll have at least a general idea, and we’ll know why each of us might get more or less. 

We might get more pay for longer service, or for our skills and qualifications, or because we’re faster, or we have more dependents to care for, or whatever our employers want to pay us more for. 

The main thing is, we know. 

I was a supermarket checkout operator when I was 14. The pay was terrible. Minimum wage was around $6 an hour, but I was paid around $3 because I was a child. All of us knew what each other was paid and why. 

I was on the least because I was the newest. Heidi got nearly twice as much because she’d been there a couple of years already. We were all being exploited, but it seemed fair because it was all upfront. 

Lots of employers don’t do this. They won’t tell us how they decide what to pay us, or what they pay others to do the same work. Some even have contracts that say we can’t talk with each other about our pay. It means we can’t know if we’re being treated fairly (and that means we probably aren’t).

I can only think of two reasons for why an employer would want to do that. 

One, they’ve inherited secretive employment practices, and they haven’t thought about it since.

Or, two, it’s because it makes it easier to exploit workers. Some workers know their worth and will successfully argue for it — but others won’t. Every underpaid worker is a win for the employer. 

Who is most likely to be that underpaid worker? People who are Pasifika, Māori, Asian or women. 

(Screenshot from mindthegap.nz)

New Zealand has had equal pay law since 1972. Fifty years later, we still have these pay gaps. Which is why the Human Rights Commission is pushing pay transparency.  

It’s great that it’s getting some media love. Pay transparency can make employers face up to whether they’re part of that problem. It reminds them to check that the way they treat workers reflects their values and goals. 

I can understand employers who don’t want to make their pay and promotion practices open because they’re not fair. It will embarrass them and their workers. But continuing to hide those practices means they can keep paying workers unfairly, without being judged against the values they claim to have.  

When people talk about pay transparency or secrecy, or pay gaps, or marginalised workers, it sounds abstract. Like, it’s just ideas. But having less money isn’t abstract, it means we have fewer options. It means less for our whānau. 

Underpaying people isn’t abstract, it’s exploiting us. Paying some people less because no one will know means an employer gets to preserve the illusion of their mana, at the cost of our mana and choices. 

If our employers actually care about Pasifika, Māori, Asian or women workers, or any marginalised group, pay transparency is a small step towards making our lives easier and fairer. It doesn’t just affect workers in our own organisation — normalising better employment practices helps workers in other organisations too.

Which brings me back to the Māori War Effort Organisation. 

In 1942, Paraire Paikea and his team hired recruiting officers based on tikanga — not military procedure or rank — and then they paid all those officers the same regardless of rank (or anything else). 

That must have been a fight. But it was important. It was part of organising as Māori. 

Where would we be if Paikea could have led this organisation for longer? Would we have a better understanding of capitalism and how it messes with our values and relationships?

We can’t avoid capitalism at the moment, but we don’t have to embrace it. We don’t have to exploit each other. 

I hope employers who care about Pasifika, Māori, Asian people and women will take this as a prompt to check if their pay and promotion practices are secretive or open, fair or unfair. 

I hope if they find anything that might embarrass them, that they fix it. 

Pay transparency is the least our employers can do.

And, workers: We need to talk about our pay. Don’t let our employers exploit us or our friends and whānau.


Kim Mcbreen is Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe, Ngāi Tahu and Pākehā. She is a kaimahi at Te Wānanga o Raukawa. She lives with her partner and two children in a small coastal town and dreams of decolonised and post-capitalist community.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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