I can’t remember exactly why, but at age 15 I was expelled from my local school, Whakatāne High.
I didn’t dare tell my hard-working parents my education had come to an abrupt end, so I put on my school uniform and jumped on the school bus like nothing had happened. At the other end I changed out of my uniform and talked my way into a job at the local fish and chip shop. The owner agreed to let me finish at 3pm each day so I could get back into my uniform and jump on the school bus like nothing was up.
It was the perfect plan until my aunty decided she needed some lunchtime kai and got one heck of a fright when she saw me slaving over the grill. She made me fess up to my parents, who helped me get into a fulltime job down at the local sawmill.
This is where I got my real education.
It was 1963, a time when no women were allowed to work on the floor. Rules were lax and we worked hard but the rewards were good, and the pay meant we had what we needed. My parents worked in forestry too and, despite having nine kids, were always able to look after us.
Back in the day, most people on the factory floor were Māori. The Pākehā fellas were quickly promoted off the floor to be bosses. We didn’t think about it too much at the time except occasionally during Friday after-work beers. I wish now we’d stopped to ask why. Looking back, it can’t be true that the few Pākehā men at our sawmill were the only ones with the nous to step up into management roles.
Times have changed and families can now no longer survive on factory wages alone while we watch others get promoted above and over us. I fear that our generation — we Baby Boomers — have stuffed it up for the next generation who are experiencing large pay gaps compared with their Pākehā peers. We didn’t address the issue then, and now we find ourselves in a situation where Māori men are experiencing a 12 per cent gap when compared with Pākehā men; for our Māori wāhine that increases to 17 per cent. (Source: NZ Stats 2023).
Even today as I visit worksites, it’s Māori and Pacific people who are dominant on the shop floor, with mainly Pākeha in management and leadership positions. There is plenty of evidence to show discrimination plays a role in creating these gaps. We need to ask ourselves what can be done about it.
The 2021 Te Kāhui Tika Tangata Human Rights Commission Inquiry into pay gaps, recommended the Government get moving on pay transparency policies to end our pay gap problem. The report says when we are more transparent about gender and ethnic pay gaps, we start to see these close.
It was good to see the Government announcement in August that large employers will be required to publicly report gender pay gaps and that the Government is committed to exploring ethnic pay gap reporting. It is important the new Government continue this work. Reporting on gender and ethnic pay gaps should be a priority for any government. Both should be included in the new legislation.
We need employers to report on their pay gaps — for both gender and ethnicity — as well as listing salaries when advertising roles and banning pay secrecy clauses in contracts. This will help tell us who is getting promoted off the factory floor and who isn’t.
A commitment to te Tiriti O Waitangi requires the Government to make sure the rights of Māori are actively promoted and protected. Pay transparency policies seem like a good place to start.
I say to my mates we were lucky to be working when we were. At the time, those jobs were enough to support a whānau. Not now. Again, I blame my generation for the mess we’ve left our tamariki and mokopuna. But we have a chance to do something about this by introducing pay transparency policies. This way we can start to close the large pay gaps that leave our Māori whānau forever stuck on the factory floor.
Syd Keepa is vice-president Māori of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions Te Kaue Kaimahi. He has tribal affiliations with Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Maru, and Ngāi Tūhoe. He has worked in forestry, the pulp and paper sector and as a truck driver. He has been an active union member throughout his career and is the kaumatua of First Union.
Keepa has long been an advocate for Māori rights and has led union support for Māori issues including the occupation of Takaparawhau/Bastion Point (1977-78), the Foreshore and Seabed Hīkoi (2004), and the campaign to protect Ihumātao (2019).
- New Zealand Herald