More than 1100 Pacific workers have engaged with the Pacific Pay Gap Inquiry over the past two years. The full report and literature review is due to be released in September.

New research into ethnic pay gaps takes a close look at why Pacific men and women are at the bottom of the pay ladder. It separates out what can be attributed to things like job type and qualification level — the visible or explained factors — from things that are much trickier to point at, like discrimination.

It found the majority of the Pacific pay gap can’t be explained or quantified through the numbers, highlighting how bias — conscious and unconscious — likely contribute to the undervaluing of Pacific workers.

Here, Dr Sereana Naepi discusses why untangling bias and racism is critical to addressing Pacific pay inequity. She was part of a panel discussing the release of a new report into ethnic pay inequity, as part of the Pacific Pay Gap inquiry.


I want to start with the fact that Pacific people contribute really meaningfully to Aotearoa New Zealand’s economy.

We contribute $8 billion to New Zealand’s GDP. We have over 1500 Pacific businesses, and 500 not-for-profit organisations which have assets totalling $8.3 billion.

We also do a tonne of unpaid work. Research from the Ministry of Pacific Peoples last year showed Pasifika people spent over 66,000 hours per week on unpaid work and volunteering. In its online survey of 2000 people, the research team found participants dedicated more than $2.4 million of their own money over four months to help others. On average, that’s $160 per person each week.

These numbers are important because they dispel any myths that we’re not contributing. They’re also important when we talk about about the Pacific pay gap. In reality, we’re a community contributing to the economy but not getting the same contribution back.

Last week, research released from Gail Pacheco, a professor of economics and the director of the New Zealand Work Research Institute at AUT, analysed the drivers behind ethnic pay gaps for Pacific, Māori and Asian.

We already know Pacific men and women experience the biggest pay gap in Aotearoa. On average, for every $1 a Pākehā man earns, a Pacific man earns 76 cents while a Pacific woman earns 73 cents.

Gail’s analysis splits the drivers of the pay gap into two components: explained and not explained.

The explained component refers to observable characteristics of the pay gap — things like educational differences, individual characteristics, job-related factors, and what region you live in. For example, it takes into account someone’s age, whether they were born in Aotearoa New Zealand, what their household income is, if they’re in a sole parent household, their occupation-type, and what level qualification they have.

The analysis showed that only 27 percent of the pay gap between Pacific men and Pākehā men is due to these “explained” or observable factors. For women, only 39 percent is explained. That means the rest — 73 percent for men, 61 percent for women — can’t be explained by individual, household, or job-related factors.

(By comparison, 70 percent of the pay gap between Māori men and Pākehā men is due to explained or observable factors. For Māori women, it’s 73 percent.)

It’s the most important takeaway from Gail’s analysis. Regardless of gender, the biggest contributor to the Pacific pay gap are factors that can’t be quantified or observed in the analysis data. It also means that the “not explained” or non-observable factors of bias, discrimination and racism need to be untangled to address the Pacific pay gap.

One of the things the research shows us is that Pacific people in Aotearoa New Zealand experience perceived discrimination and structural racism. That’s racism inflicted at an individual, one-to-one level, as well as the structural systems of discrimination and racism in workplaces.

Of course, it’s a bit harder to call that out in real life. For example, if you ask someone if they’re biased or racist, they’re likely to say no. In an organisational setting, it’s a similar story.

One of the biggest things we get told is that “there is no ethnic pay gap here”. But when we ask organisations and employers for the ethnicity data showing that, often we find there’s no data because it hasn’t been collected. Essentially, it’s assumed that pay discrimination and bias simply don’t exist.

To help people understand why they might have a bias against Pacific people — even when they point out they’ve got a Pacific friend — I often talk about the history of Pacific people and New Zealand. In regards to pay inequity, and the value of Pacific people alongside their non-Pacific peers, we need to understand how Pacific people have been commodified for their labour in specific ways over decades.

For a start, there’s New Zealand’s history of colonisation in the Pacific, which means New Zealand’s involvement with Pacific nations is grounded in attitudes of imperialism and white supremacy. We need to acknowledge that this is an inherently unequal foundation for a relationship that continues today. Government reports from that time also show New Zealand’s paternalistic approach to its Pacific neighbours.

Then we have Pacific migration to Aotearoa. During the 1950s and ‘60s, Pacific people were recruited to fill labour shortages in specific industries. Related to that is New Zealand’s influence in the Pacific region through education. It had a key role in shaping education systems which ensured Pacific people were trained in skills beneficial to New Zealand’s labour gap.

As we know, the Dawn Raids era followed. Once the labour shortages were filled, public and political sentiment turned against Pacific people in New Zealand. Anti-Pacific racism was rife, and we were no longer welcome. After being recruited to live and work in New Zealand, our years of contribution were dismissed, as economic prosperity declined.

Also relevant is today’s RSE scheme. Each year, thousands of workers are flown from Pacific nations to pick and pack fruit and vegetables. For the 2021-2022 season, 16,000 workers were approved for the RSE scheme.

In New Zealand, Pacific people are seen to fit very specific roles. They’ve been seen as filling labour shortages but not in roles like company CEO or manager. Those preconceived beliefs contribute to the bias and discrimination that affects the value of Pacific people in workplaces. And that flows into pay disparity.

Often, without realising it, we’re automatically assigned less value in the workplace — and that’s linked to the not-explained or not-observed part of the Pacific pay gap.

For me, this is quite personal. I didn’t know I was experiencing a pay gap until one of my colleagues mentioned it to me, and told me how much she was earning.

We need to think carefully about the contribution Pacific people have in our workplaces, and in our economy, and what it means when we’re consistently paid less than other ethnic groups.

It’s about the structures that uphold pay inequity in workplaces, and the wider impact that has for Pacific people and their families.

Internationally, comprehensive pay transparency and mandatory reporting have made a significant difference to gender and ethnic pay gaps. It means you know how much you get paid for a specific role at a particular experience level. It also means knowing what your colleague with the same experience and qualifications is paid — as opposed to pay secrecy where that information is hidden.

Mandatory reporting means that organisations have to collect ethnic pay data and can identify where the gaps are. It isn’t about assigning blame — it’s about understanding what our work spaces look like and addressing the problems that come up.

Collecting ethnicity data also helps focus resources where they’re actually needed. There’s no neat and compact solution to addressing the Pacific pay gap, and work should be targeted where it will make a difference.

Organisations need to look at whether bias shows up during its recruitment process, affecting who gets their foot in the door right at the start. Or is it where Pacific people are employed within your workplace? Is it that Pacific employees might need professional development? Or is it that your human resources team might need some professional development?

The research also shows the Pacific pay gap is experienced differently depending on where you’re employed and what you do. For some of us, it’s about tens of thousands of dollars, and for others it’s about an hourly wage. For still others, it’s about highlighting specific barriers to pay equity in our workplaces.

For example, in the manufacturing industry, where one in five Pacific men work, the average hourly wage for Pacific workers is $22.58, compared to $29.74 for non-Pacific workers. It’s a pay gap of 24 percent, which has persisted since 2010.

In the construction industry, which is the fourth largest employer of Pacific people, the pay gap is actually increasing. In 2018, it was 14 percent, up from six percent since 2010. The average hourly wage for Pacific construction workers is $25.42 per hour compared to $29.44 for non-Pacific.

In health, where more than one in five Pacific women work, the average hourly wage of a Pacific worker has increased significantly since 2010. It’s now $25.22. However, that’s still lower than the average hourly wage of $32.29 for non-Pacific workers in the sector. The overall pay disparity between Pacific and Pākehā workers in the health sector is 22 percent.

We need to think about how the pay gap affects different sectors and how that determines what we do. There’s the big picture things like addressing educational attainment and occupation status. More mentoring programmes and increasing Pacific representation at managerial levels is also important. There’s also gaps in legislation that need to be addressed so ethnicity is accounted for. And, of course, organisations need to collect ethnicity data and act on the gaps they find.

At an individual level, we also need to get past being awkward and start talking about our pay. We need to talk to colleagues about our qualifications and experience, and find out if we’re experiencing a pay gap.

Addressing the Pacific pay gap means tackling what happens in all the settings we work in. It’s about addressing the “explained” and “not explained” factors, and recognising the inherent bias that has got us to this point today.


Dr Sereana Naepi is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Auckland. She has Fijian and Pākehā whakapapa, and lives in Tāmaki Makaurau with her husband and two daughters. Her research and work focuses on improving outcomes for Pasifika in higher education. Sereana’s work on the Pacific Pay Gap is in partnership with Matada Research.

The Pacific Pay Gap inquiry is being led by Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Saunoamaali’i Karanina Sumeo. More than 1100 workers have engaged with the inquiry over the past two years. The full report and literature review is due to be released in September.

As told to Teuila Fuatai. This piece has been made possible by NZ On Air through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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