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War reaches into working women's lives

28 April 2015

New Zealand saw the return of conscription in July 1940 during World War 2. The conscripted men and volunteers of working age had a significant impact on the economy. Women filled the gap.

ANZAC day remembrance services have happened throughout New Zealand and Australia.

The ramifications of both World Wars had a profound effect in New Zealand. Not only do the emotional repercussions continue to reverberate today, we also continue to see the effect on domestic life.

Employment law in New Zealand was no exception. Indeed the forces which were set in motion 100 years ago continue to cause shifts in the employment landscape today.

When New Zealand entered the war, it was believed by our young idealistic soldiers and senior officers that that they would need only weeks to mop up the enemy forces. They would march to Istanbul and a route would be opened to help finish the war.

As readers will be all too aware, this did not eventuate and the call for service went on far longer than anyone seemed to anticipate. Indeed the desperation for men to serve increased until conscription began in 1916.

New Zealand saw the return of conscription in July 1940 during World War 2. Every man between 19 and 45 was liable for service. 306,000 men were conscripted. In the Second World War thousands of men leaving for war had left job vacancies in factories and other workplaces.

The conscripted men and volunteers of working age had a significant impact on the economy. Women filled the gap.

There was some reluctance to require women to work. However these restrictions slowly faded reflecting the country's need for labour. Initially only women who were 20 or 21 were required to sign up for work. The reach widened to those between 18 and 40 as the War progressed. Married women were exempt to begin with but by 1943 they were required to register.

Back then there was the strongly held belief that womens' lives were best focused on private, family, and domestic matters. So the awards in industrial agreements introduced part time permits which were signed by the local unions for domestic workers in hospital and hotels. The folk lore was that while this was to provide some protection for women workers, it was also to protect the full time positions that men had previously occupied. But the clock would never be turned back.

Part time permits are now well and truly a thing of the past as well as the attitudes that resisted employing women until the realities of an absent male workforce forced change.

Women were eager to prove themselves and volunteered to be employed in the occupations previously held by men, even if their preference was to escape the more tedious jobs they could be drafted into. Even during these times of desperation and shortage, women were paid a different rate from men.

Critically, though, women showed they were equally capable in domains reserved for men.

Equal pay was introduced first in the public sector and then universally many years after World War Two. But the arguments continue with the more recent litigation with the notion of equal pay for work of equal value.

The Court case brought by Kristine Bartlett against TerraNova homes is still before our courts. Bartlett through her union argues that industries that are dominated by women result in everybody in the industry being paid less than if the industry was dominated by men. They will attempt to compare the skills required for work in a women dominated industry with another industry with similar skills which is dominated by men and then argue that pay rates should be equalised upwards.

The implications of this case are far reaching and are likely to lead to resolution by legislation. Any industry that has an overwhelmingly female workforce is vulnerable to litigation and back pay claims which could go on for years. Examples would such industries as the aged care industry, hospital nurses and those in the child care industry.

ANZAC day 2015 is significant. It marks the centenary of loss of life coupled with a lack of success at Gallipoli. The respect that we show today to those who gave their lives says something quite profound about us as a people. Our evolution is also captured by the evolving respect and equality of women in our society.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm is one of only eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

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