Māori nurses earn 25% less. And this government won’t even talk about it

There’s a big pay disparity between nurses working for Māori health providers and nurses working at DHBs. And Māori voters aren’t going to ignore signs of indifference, writes Morgan Godfery. 

At the last election I was a know-nothing 25-year-old who truly, genuinely, thought a Labour-led government would catch up on nine lost years under National. I thought the incoming trade minister might shelve the TPP, not sign it. I thought Kiwibuild would take off, helping transform the country from a neoliberal paradise to a merely nice neoliberal destination. I thought a change in government was the best shot the Māori nurses had for securing pay parity with their non-Māori colleagues too.  

Wrong, again.

It’s a devastating comedown, and probably a useful reminder (as a trade unionist and all) that my guys, the red team, whatever, are often as inert and overly fussy about how money for Māori might play with the voters as the other guys are. But at least with the National Party they’re straight up about it. They just don’t care that much for Māori nurses. Yet Labour, quite rightly, champion unions, nurses, fulsome funding for the public health system, and a commitment in principle and deed to gender equality and pay parity.

Or at least Labour oppositions do.

In government the responsible minister, Labour’s Tāmaki Makaurau MP Peeni Henare, has only met with the nurses’ union on two occasions. When the union chief, NZNO’s Kerri Nuku, sent a formal request to meet with the minister again last year it seems neither Henare nor his staff sent a reply – not even the courtesy to formally and regretfully decline. I’m sure it was an administrative error – correspondence goes missing all of the time – but the stakes are too high not to take every opportunity to thrash out a joint solution.

The problem is simple enough: nurses working for iwi and other Māori health providers earn 25% less than their colleagues working for District Health Boards. Like kōhanga teachers, most of whom earn less than their colleagues in other early childhood centres, if they earn anything at all, providing essential services for Māori communities is seen as less than providing for “New Zealanders”.

The government would argue race isn’t a funding factor, and it’s true enough that bureaucrats at the Ministry of Health don’t wake up in the morning thinking about all the ways they’re going to screw down the Māoris that day. But the intention is irrelevant: Māori nurses working for their people just earn less. The reasons for that are structural. In the ministry’s procurement contracts with iwi and Māori health providers the price for services is set too low.

This, of course, is the entire point of “devolving” services to private providers like iwi – ideologically it’s meant to mean “cheaper” and more “efficient” services. But that bogus theory ignores how Māori providers are helping treat a community with, statistically and practically, greater and different needs from the rest of New Zealand. I hope that’s obvious, and I hope the solution is too: pay Māori health providers enough to cover all their costs.

No one, nurses especially, should take a 25% pay cut so their employer can keep the lights on.

In the government’s modest defence the minister is working with the Ministry of Health, taking “advice” on the issue. I find that funny, in a bleak way. Why take advice from the very ministry that presides over and in every procurement contract negotiation reinforces the racial pay gap in the first place? It’s like consulting the flu virus on the best treatment. The better institutions to turn to are the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues, the Waitangi Tribunal, and the nurses’ union (duh).  

That, in a paragraph, is probably the problem at the heart of this government – few ministers seem to know how to leverage a political constituency or a political issue to achieve policy change. Kiwibuild went bust, even though it was a worthy and necessary policy with broad support. The responsible minister just couldn’t make it work. It’s here, in the performance rather than the promise, where gaps open up, and Māori are always the first to fall through. This is as true for Oranga Tamariki as it is for Ihumātao.

The problem for Labour is the conclusion Māori voters might take from this come September 19.  


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