Three support workers, special education, have stepped up to take a case for equal pay.

Mary Jones from Masterton (centre) and Kathy Power, (left) Christchurch, are pictured here with Kristine Bartlett, the aged-care worker who fought her case all the way to the Appeal Court. Denise Tetzlaff, from Auckland, is the third NZEI member to join the case.

The three are communication or education support workers employed by the Ministry of Education, working one-to-one with children, usually on speech and language.

In 2007 NZEI research showed they were paid $8 an hour less than comparable male employees, corrections staff. Jones says some of the children they work with have complex behavioural issues, and they deserved better. “They deserve to have people who are valued for the skills they have. We need a lot of skills and expertise to do our jobs.”

Both Jones and Power say their work makes a big difference. “It can be a huge confidence boost for the child, once they are understood by their peers. They can interact in the class – they really blossom,” says Jones.

Despite facing many of the usual support worker challenges, both are highly positive about their work “The satisfaction I get is to make a difference. One of the children, when I started with him, he couldn’t say any words and now he speaks in three and four-word utterances. He was having huge temper tantrums and was noncompliant, but that has changed,” says Power.

The aged-care case, which Bartlett won, sets a legal precedent for equal pay that has prompted the government to set up a working group with unions to seek a resolution. NZEI members are active in it.

The campaign has gained traction with recent research showing that many women in the workforce are not paid equitably.

Editorial, Paul Goulter:

A dirty secret of our education system is its failure to provide for pay equity. This issue of EA introduces three women who are support workers (story above). They have decided enough is enough. As NZEI members, they are taking representative pay equity cases under the Equal Pay Act to remedy a longstanding injustice.

A 2007 investigation revealed significant pay disparities for these workers, compared to an equivalent group of corrections officers. The National-led Government disingenuously said “sort it out in bargaining”. Seven years on, these women are still waiting.

Following a successful court case, NZEI and the Council of Trade Unions are negotiating with government and employers on how to settle these cases. If these talks fail we will be back in court. Inequity cannot be a basis for successful education. This injustice will be challenged.