EEO Commissioner Dr Jackie Blue's address to the CTU Women's Conference

EEO Commissioner Dr Jackie Blue's address to the CTU Women's Conference

July 10, 2015

 

Thank you for the opportunity to address this conference.

I am delighted to be here today as this conference brings together issues I am most passionate about; work and women.

Today I would like to talk about my own experience with unions, the union movement in New Zealand and issues that are still prevalent in the context of work in New Zealand – particularly for women. 

The conference today is aptly called “Inspiring Union Women.” There are several inspiring women I would like to acknowledge today.   

The word inspiring in this sense is both an adjective and a verb.

Let’s deal with the adjective first.

Look around the room. You are all inspiring women.

You are members of the CTU; an organisation which brings together over 350,000 members in 40 affiliated unions. 

As CTU Women you are the voice and advocacy group for all CTU female members. The five goals that you stand by are still as relevant today as they were when they were developed.

The fact that you are here at this conference means that you care.

I have been impressed with the titles of some of the sessions. They are emotive, a call to action and a reminder that the goals have not yet been reached, though some are tantalising close. 

  • Equal Pay – whatever it takes!
  • How do we win? Never give up!
  • Inspiring women action plan

I have only belonged to one Union in my career.

As a junior doctor in the 80s in the public hospitals I was a member of the doctor’s union, the Resident Medical Association. 

The working hours at the time for junior doctors in the hospitals were simply atrocious. We could be on call one night a week and every few weeks also required to work the weekend. There were no shifts. 

We worked the call days and nights with no break and often very little sleep. It was totally unsafe. I didn’t think to challenge it. It was the way it had always been but I was very pleased when shifts for doctors came in shortly after I had left the hospital. 

That was down to the doctor’s union.

There was another time that I wished I belonged to a Union. Early in my career I was working as a doctor in the private sector. Management put pressure on myself and others to work outside our scope of practice, something we all felt very uncomfortable about.

It was an impossible situation. At the time we felt that there was no one we could turn to. Unfortunately, the Unions we approached worked exclusively for the public sector and were unable to assist us.

Our families were dependent on us and it would have been very difficult for any of us to resign and walk away. We were all professional women and we felt helpless.

In retrospect I can see that we could have done any number of things but at the time we felt intimidated, bullied and not supported. 

As part of my preparation for this talk I looked into the history of the union movement in New Zealand. 

I came across a wonderful 2009 speech by feminist and former MP Sue Kedgley. She talked about the history of the feminist movement and the Working Women’s Charter.

Reading about the Charter and the feminist movement was enthralling. 

Labour activist Sonja Davies was introduced to the Working Women’s Charter at a conference in Sydney, Australia, in 1976. 

The Charter became a lightning rod for the feminist movement in New Zealand in the mid-1970.

The Charter comprised 16 articles. Here are a few of them:

#3: Equal pay for work of equal value

#8: The introduction of a shorter working week with no loss of pay, flexible working hours, part-time opportunities for all workers

#13: The introduction of adequate paid parental leave for both mothers and fathers. 

Sue Kedgley had a wonderful quote from the Prime Minister at the time Rob Muldoon who when asked about women’s liberation said: 

…"Could we contemplate the situation where a woman getting equal pay is the breadwinner, and the husband stays home and looks after the children? … I don't think we could."

 

As a young student at Auckland University in the early to mid-70s I was right in the middle of the feminist movement but at the time I hadn’t appreciated what an astonishing part of history it was and would be.

I remember every Sunday, a young, bearded Tim Shadbolt held court at Albert Park, opposite Auckland University. These ‘gatherings’ as they became known were packed with young people smoking pot and dancing to the local bands.

As a 17 year old university student, I was most definitely amongst these gatherings! I will never forget Tim holding up a dog above his head and declaring that DOG was in fact GOD spelt backwards. 

We all cheered. It seemed very profound.  

Feminist and author Germaine Greer flew into town and was arrested for saying ‘bullshit” and the anti-Vietnam war protesters saw their numbers swell. 

While I attended some gatherings, I was more interested in partying than going to protests.

Instead of joining the Women’s Liberation movement I joined the University Wine Society. 

If there is one thing I would change about my life, it would be that my eyes were open to social injustices much, much sooner.

Now back to present day and my work with unions. 

I had only been in my new role as Commissioner for a very short time when I met Brenda Pilot, former National Secretary of the PSA. I didn’t know what to expect and was more than a little daunted about the meeting.

Brenda completely smashed my stereotypical image of what a unionist was, not that I am not even sure what that might be – probably a collage of very bad black and white movies that were available on TV in the early 60s that invariably involved the boss pitted against the workers, thuggery and the catch cry “Down tools boys – were out”.

What I wasn’t prepared for was a highly intelligent, quietly spoken woman with a passion for research and a steely determination to improve the working conditions of the largely female PSA workforce. 

Brenda Pilot is an inspiring woman. She inspired me.

My principal EEO adviser Sue O’Shea with her bright red hair, even brighter red lipstick, wisdom and knowledge has also inspired me. 

They both made me understand that there is absolutely a place for Unions. 

Unions often bridge the gap between employer and employee. They facilitate uncomfortable conversations to take place. They support employees and often give them the strength they need to firmly and clearly state their working rights and conditions.

There are employees who do not have a ‘voice’, who do not have bargaining power in the employer-employee relationship.

Sound familiar? Of course that was me early in my medical career.

There should be a healthy and natural tension between employer and unions. 

It should not be a “them” and “us”.

At the end of the day, this relationship must be respectful and a win-win for all

 

I feel particularly privileged to Chair the Caring Counts Coalition which was set up following the publication of the Human Rights Commission’s Caring Counts report, an inquiry into the aged care workforce.

The Coalition comprises peak bodies, providers, Age Concern and Grey Power, trade unions and the industry ITO.  

As such the Coalition is a unique tripartite of business, consumers and unions with the Human Rights Commission being a neutral body. The Coalition has been meeting regularly and collaboratively since it was established.

It is an absolute pleasure to be part of this highly functional and motivated group.

One area where Unions are particularly important is in the current debate regarding raising the living wage of minimum wage employment sectors

There is a huge amount of research that supports that decent work and decent pay pays off in multiple ways.

It won’t be surprising to any of you that workers who are worried about income security perform less well at work. 

Higher wages motivate employees to work harder, attracts more capable and productive workers, enhances quality and customer service, enhanced reputation with consumers, reduces disciplinary problems and absenteeism, and are associated with better employee health.

Higher wages leads to lower turnover, reducing the costs of hiring and training new workers. As a consequence, firms with higher wages need to devote fewer resources to monitoring. Greater job satisfaction can also result in less conflict between employers and unions.

This is the argument that needs to be sold to business. That’s the business case.

The human rights case is that equality underpins all human rights. It requires the establishment of a society in which all human beings will be accorded equal dignity and respect regardless of their membership of particular groups. And the workplace is a critical environment in which human rights must live. 

And in the public sector we found in our publication What’s Working EEO in the public service that departments doing better in terms of equality of employment outcomes for various EEO groups were driven by ensuring their staff from top to bottom represented the public they served. Their motivation was providing better service. 

I am not worried that the human rights argument is not the primary driver because I am convinced that over time the rest will follow and there will be a genuine appreciation and understanding of the human rights principles at work.

The ends do justify the means in this case. 

Another issue attached to another inspiring woman is Kristine Bartlett, Service and Food Workers Union member. Kristine is leading the charge in the landmark Equal Pay Case which at the crux of it is the principle of equal pay for work of equal value.

The promise of pay equity is so very close and it will not be denied.

I am convinced Kristine and the Service and Food Workers Union will pull this off.

The Commission recently launched a web tool called “Tracking Equalities at Work”. 

I would like to acknowledge the huge amount of work that Sue O’Shea had in developing this very powerful tool.

To see the graphics and trend-lines of how women are at a huge disadvantage in the labour market disturbed me greatly.

 

Quoting stats is one thing but to actually see those stats in a versatile, interactive web tool where they can be tracked and filtered in a number of ways really hit home.

I will quote some of the headline stats.

  • Very pertinent to the Equal Pay Case is the fact that the vast majority of minimum wage earners between the age of 25 and 65 years are women and in a recent survey of the aged care workforce, many female carers were the sole bread winner for their families.
  • Female unemployment is consistently higher than male unemployment across all ethnicities and all ages.
  • Women are paid less than men overall and in each ethnic group.
  • Compounding vulnerabilities were evident. If it was bad for women, it was worse if the women were Pacific or Maori.
  • Disabled women earn less than disabled men and have lower labour force participation than their male peers
  • While NEET or not in employment, education or training rates have improved over time for the 15-19 year group   this is not the case for females
  • Female NEET rates are higher than male rates both for the 15-19 and 20-24 age groups.
  • It is particularly bad for young Maori and Pacific women in their 20s where one in three are NEET.
  • Women’s leadership in the labour market has either stalled, improving at snail’s pace or going backwards.

To conclude today’s speech; I would like acknowledge a final inspirational woman here with us today, your very own Helen Kelly.

Helen, I salute you.

You are a battler for pay equity, workplace safety, decent work and conditions and above all justice for all workers.

Your involvement in these issues is deeply personal, genuine and it is clear you are there for the long haul.

You are not like a politician who makes an art of sweeping in, being seen, working the room, and then exiting. You are deeply committed to the people you serve.

I realised you would have been formidable in central body politics when I listened to a recent interview that you did with Katherine Ryan.

In the interview, you reflected that years prior, after a particularly no win interview you received a huge amount of hate mail, which you were very proud of.  Politics is not for the faint hearted and the skin of a rhinoceros is a prerequisite.

This showed me that you were so strong in your belief and convictions and you wouldn’t allow others opinions to deter you from your important work.

In the interview, you also reflected that though you have been diagnosed with a serious illness, you are living each day, not dying.

You stated that you continued to work because your job was your vocation, a calling, it was an honour, and there was much unfinished business.

You were at peace with accepting your own mortality as each of us here will have to do at some point in our lives. There is no escape from that.

 

When I worked as a breast physician, I met many, far too many, amazing women who had to do exactly what you are doing.

Privately I wondered if I could or would be as courageous as those women when my time came.

Helen, I know that all of us in this room draw strength from women like you who are steadfast in their convictions and living their lives with purpose and meaning despite difficult circumstances. 

Impulsively I sent a message of support to you via Facebook and referred to the symbolic phrase  “putting on a hard hat”, – a thought that has often helped me stay strong in tough times. I even offered to lend you my hard hat that I had bought off Trade Me. Afterwards I worried if I’d gone too far. I thought you might think I was a total flake.

But I was mightily relieved and reassured when you replied to me that you have your own ‘hard hat’ – your one is a Miner’s hat, mine a post-World War 2 Brodie Helmet. 

Our hard hats are there, at the ready, when the going gets tough.

Helen, I absolutely support and share your vision of a modern union where there is a true partnership between business, workers and the Government.

You finished your interview saying “we don’t give up and we push back’.

We don’t give up and we push back.

That sums it up perfectly. 

In this important work of supporting workers to achieve their rights whether through equal pay, better conditions, higher wages or promoting women at work, there is nothing more that can be said. 

Thank you to all of you. 

EEO Commissioner Dr Jackie Blue

Dr Blue is committed to progressing human rights and issues of equity, particularly those that affect equal employment opportunities.

Dr Blue also has a strong commitment to advancing the participation of women in society and is the Commission's lead on stopping violence against women.

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