The pay gap is hurting our workers, and Pacific people are feeling it most (Image: Toby Morris)
The pay gap is hurting our workers, and Pacific people are feeling it most (Image: Toby Morris)

PartnersAugust 8, 2022

Could transparency help fix our pay gap problem?

The pay gap is hurting our workers, and Pacific people are feeling it most (Image: Toby Morris)
The pay gap is hurting our workers, and Pacific people are feeling it most (Image: Toby Morris)

Māori and Pacific people are working for far less pay than their Pākehā counterparts. Mind The Gap is calling for action from both businesses and government to help close that gap.

Shontel is a 24-year-old Sāmoan, Māori and Pākehā woman who lives alone in a South Auckland suburb, where she pays $480 rent per week. She’s bubbly, chatty and hard-working, but she’s also struggling. She earns $21.85 per hour for a weekly nine-hour shift at a fast food chain, and $21.20 per hour for a 23-hour-per-week retail job. Shontel receives the Work and Income accommodation supplement, but even then she’s left without much for food, bills or unexpected costs.

“I’m constantly stressed about work and money. It makes it hard to sleep properly.” 

Sharon is a Māori and Pākehā woman in her 60s who’s worked in the same large hospitality business for more than two decades. She is warm and forthright, and says that while she enjoys her work, it’s clear to her that the Māori and Pasifika people who make up a large number of her colleagues aren’t seeing themselves reflected in the decision-making roles.

“If you want to know anything about the business, we know it,” she says. “[But] if you look at management, it’s mostly Pākehā – and there are Pacific people and Māori quite capable of being up there.”

E Tū union activist and living wage campaigner Mareta Sinoti is a cleaner at the National Library in Wellington. She was relieved when the government’s transition to paying the living wage was announced. Unfortunately, her pay won’t change until after the current DIA contract expires and can be re-tendered, which may not happen until 2023.

Working so close to the halls of power, she says the foot-dragging is frustrating. “I’m sick and tired of seeing those MPs’ faces, since they said things would change in one year.”

Mareta Sinoti (Photo: E Tū)

As the cost of living continues to rise, these women are far from alone in their struggles. And compounding issues like inflation and housing unaffordability is a notable disparity in earnings across different demographics in Aotearoa. Figures shared by the Mind The Gap campaign show that for every dollar a Pākehā man earns, a Pākehā woman earns $0.89 and a Māori man earns $0.86. Asian men and women and Pasifika men are lower still, with Māori and Pasifika women the lowest relative earners at $0.81 and $0.75 respectively.

For Saunoamaali’i Karanina Sumeo, equal employment opportunities commissioner for the Human Rights Commission (HRC), it’s clear that change is needed. “It’s not our choice to be paid unfairly, or treated unequally. It’s not our choice to not be promoted. We’re putting our hands up. But the people making the choices that determine pay are our businesses, employers and recruitment agencies.”

As commissioner, Sumeo is well-versed in the macro-level discussions around pay gaps. But as a Samoan-New Zealander who moved to Aotearoa at 10 and eventually gained her PhD in public policy at AUT, she’s also seen the impacts of the Pacific pay gap first-hand. She says the gap creates intergenerational run-on impacts for Pacific people, owing to the loss of accrued earnings over lifetimes.

A recent HRC report on these pay gaps found that although some could be accounted for by “explained” differences – things like occupation, industry or a worker’s education level – the majority of recognised Pacific-to-Pākehā pay gaps – 73% for men and 61% for women – were in fact “unexplained”. On the report’s release, Sumeo suggested that among these unexplained factors there was likely a non-insignificant level of unconscious bias, structural racism and discriminatory workplace practices.

For Sumeo, this finding belies the common hypothesis that the disparity figures stem from Pacific people doing more manual labour. “It kind of blows up all those myths, or all those excuses that have stopped people taking responsibility for making things right.”

It’s not hard to find examples of that discrimination in action. Shontel describes a situation in a former position where she was repeatedly passed over for a requested promotion, despite management regularly calling on her to assume the duties of that more senior role due to staff shortages. “I just thought that was completely wrong,” she says. “I shouldn’t be treated like that. By the law I should be paid extra.” The experience not only soured her experience with that company, but had wider repercussions. “I genuinely got sick,” she recalls. “And then I started giving up. Because I just didn’t feel valued.”

As stories like Shontel’s continue to stack up, there’s a growing consensus that the way we value work and workers needs to change. Sumeo points out that we often justify low wages on the basis that certain work doesn’t require formal qualifications. “This is a patronising view we have of essential work, a lot of which is being done by Māori and Pasifika peoples. The way we value work in terms of its worth to society is completely unbalanced.”

It’s an untenable situation, and one which spurred Dr Jo Cribb and Dellwyn Stuart, co-founders of Mind The Gap, into action. Cribb says the conception of the Mind The Gap campaign came from frustration at what they perceived as an institutional-level lack of action.

“It was a strategic decision that really just came from asking ourselves what we could do to make a difference. If we knew we were going to have to put our time and our energy and our souls into this, what would be worth fighting for?”

Jo Cribb, Mind the Gap (Photo: Dean Zillwood for The Spinoff)

The result of that prompt was the Mind The Gap registry – a publicly accessible record of New Zealand companies’ pay gaps, designed to make these issues more visible and to prompt employers to think more proactively about addressing them. The entirely opt-in service launched in early 2022, with more than 160 major New Zealand businesses initially invited to contribute data.

One employer which has voluntarily signed up to the registry is Catapult, an eight-person leadership consultancy focused on culture and system change. Founder and co-director Andrea Thompson says that although her business is much smaller than some of the others invited to participate, its decision was one motivated by underlying ethics.Catapult’s work is about encouraging others to stretch their ambition to be good for the world. So it’s a matter of integrity for us to help lead the way wherever we can.”

For Thompson, the motivation is also personal – she sees the business registry as an opportunity to bring “sunlight” to the issue of pay gaps. But while Catapult and a number of other businesses have willingly engaged with Mind The Gap, a quick inspection of the registry shows that many more of the invited businesses have so far neglected to take part.

There’s broad agreement that ultimately the reporting problem is one which needs a regulatory fix. Dr Minna Cowper-Coles is a research fellow at London’s King’s College and leader of the politics research stream at the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership. She was the project lead for a research report evaluating the effectiveness of pay gap reporting in six different counties, which ultimately found that in order to drive real action, businesses would need to be compelled to produce data.

“Reporting has to be mandatory in order to reach employers and drive home how important this is,” she says. “It would allow the media and employees to have a better grasp of the issue, which in turn would actually make it easier for employers to disclose their pay gaps.”

Cribb agrees, saying that the campaign team expects an announced (albeit not yet timelined) government move towards mandatory pay gap reporting will trigger significant changes in how organisations operate. When asked what she sees as the likely effect of this change, her response is a simple one: “They’ll become more conscious. [And] when you take out the unconscious bias … more Māori and Pasifika women will be promoted into higher paying jobs.”

And though the underlying inequity may seem like a problem without fast or simple solutions, in the pandemic-era economic landscape there’s a clear need for an urgent response. As power bills spike and wages stagnate, Mind The Gap’s #NotAnotherWinter campaign is a direct response to this need, urging New Zealanders to sign a petition demanding immediate action from the government to mandate pay gap reporting.

Union rep Sinoti knows that in the short-term it’s contingent on people like her and organisations like E Tū to keep battling for better, fairer pay and conditions – and she wants to encourage others in similar situations to do the same. 

“I’m not fighting for myself,” says Sinoti, “I fight for the thousands of cleaners all around the country. But they need to fight too.” Hospitality worker Sharon is likewise passionate and optimistic about what collective action could allow for Māori and Pasifika workers in her sector, particularly those who are new to the workforce. “I will speak up and say something. And I say to the young ones: you need to do the same.”

But ultimately, this is a problem that will only be solved by action from those in power. And while Mind The Gap continues to agitate for the change they want enshrined in legislation, Cribb wants businesses to recognise their own power to make a difference.

“If you are a manager, the first thing you should do is look at your team, look at your pay data, and ask are you a part of the problem? And if you are, could the solution start with you?”

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