Community Scoop

The Community Sector – a Worker’s Paradise?

Brenda photoBrenda Pilott

National Manager | Social Service Providers Aotearoa

The community sector ought to be the best place to work, with a genuine alignment of purpose between employers and employees, underpinned by shared commitments to justice, fairness and respect.  Our NGOs ought to be model employers.

But we’re a long way from the community sector being a paradise for workers.  Or even providing decent work environments, in many cases.  Why is that?

A quick glance at some key statistics will show you the community sector is characterised by low wages, low levels of unionisation, few collective agreements, high rates of employment relationship difficulties, problems in recruitment. The work is often highly stressful, and access to support, supervision and training can be limited.

But that’s not the whole picture.  The sector is populated by people, workers and managers, who are committed to making their workplaces the best possible places.  That’s been very apparent in the discussions about the impact the Oranga Tamariki social workers pay equity settlement has had for the community sector, which employs around 60% of all registered social workers.  Unable to match pay rates, huge efforts go into making sure the work environment is as positive and supportive as possible.

The fact is, however, that the community sector in NZ is a low wage environment.  This is down to one thing only, and it is the persistent and systemic under-funding of the sector.  And that is the responsibility of the government agencies that contract for services at low or partial rates and ministers when they make Budget decisions.  SSPA has commissioned a study which will, later this year, reveal the true extent of that underfunding.

It’s a difficult picture, but there is cause for optimism.  And the solutions aren’t actually that difficult:

  • Funding from government agencies that reflect the full cost of delivery – fair funding.
  • With fair funding, workers in the sector can get fair pay, that corresponds to the rates for similar jobs in the government sector. Industry agreements about wages would help.
  • Workforce planning to improve the supply of qualified workers and to help match the profile of sector workers with those using our services.
  • Better support for good governance and management.
  • A more strongly unionised workforce.

Not all my colleagues in the sector will agree with my last point.

I have, admittedly, an uncommon set of perspectives on community sector workplaces, having spent a decade as the head of the PSA, the union for the sector, and rather more years working in or with the sector.  I’ve been a union delegate, an employer, and I’ve been on both sides of the bargaining table (not at the same time!)  I’m still a union member and an employer.

Based on that experience, I have seen that productive union relationships benefit organisations, and union membership benefits workers.  Everybody wins!


This blog has been contributed by a member of the ComVoices network. The views presented here are not necessarily those of ComVoices.

ComVoices is a Wellington based network of national community and voluntary sector organisations. It was established so that sector organisations would have a more powerful voice at Government level and in the community.

Click here for our website