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New Zealand Council of Trade Unions Te Kauae Kaimahi Women's Council

1987 –

This essay written by Eileen Brown was published online in Women together: a history of women's organisations in New Zealand in 2019.

Formation of the Women’s Council

The precursors of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions Te Kauae Kaimahi (NZCTU) Women’s Council were the women’s advisory committees of the Federation of Labour (FOL) (appointed in 1976, this committee became elected in 1981) and of the Combined State Unions (1984). In 1986 the FOL conference decided that the convenors of district women’s committees would be members of the executives of district trades councils, and the convenor of the national women’s advisory committee would be a non-voting member of the FOL national executive. [1] As part of the process of forming the NZCTU, a constitutional and policy conference was held in March 1987. This voted by a tiny margin (265,463 to 265,187) to have separate committees for women and Māori, with voting rights at all levels of the organisation – including on the national executive. [2]

The NZCTU’s inaugural conference in October 1987 confirmed this, and established an interim national women’s committee, which had its first meeting on 3 December 1987. [3] The first NZCTU women’s conference, held in February 1989, then elected the national women’s committee. [4]  This later became known as the NZCTU Women‘s Council. It organised a women’s conference every two years, bringing together union women and leaders to share their work and union experiences and activities, and to form policy and remits for the biennial NZCTU Conference.

An important strength of the Women’s Council was its recognition in the constitutional structure of the NZCTU, with a mandate to promote and advance employment issues for women workers. This ensured advocacy and representation of working women’s issues at all levels of the workforce and trade union movement. The co-convenors of the Women’s Council were on the National Affiliates Council, the NZCTU’s governing body. The Council had women representing each of the affiliated unions, as well as what are now Te Rūnanga o ngā Kaimahi Māori o Aotearoa (Te Rūnanga), Komiti Pasefika, and the Out at Work and StandUp Councils. [5] It worked collaboratively with all NZCTU representative bodies on issues of mutual interest and concern. 

NZCTU Women's Council
The NZCTU Women’s Council meeting with the Minister for Women, 17 May 2018. Left to right, back: Marianne Bishop, Georgia Choveaux, Jo Scott, Jennifer Laulala, Deb Taylor, Christine Fishihoi, Maryann Hainsworth, Nici Bennington; middle: Liz Robinson, Ruth Te Rangi, Eileen Brown; front: Sheryl Cadman, Hon. Julie Anne Genter, Anne Reedy.

The Women’s Council at work

While the priorities and aims of the Women’s Council were influenced by the political and industrial climate, there were core issues: promoting unionisation, strengthening collective bargaining, action on pay and employment equity, addressing sexual harassment, improving parental leave, working hours and leave, health and safety (later including safety from domestic violence), and leadership development for union women. The Council promoted and developed education for women unionists, as well as employment-related education leave. Seminars and training were offered on pay equity, sexual harassment, health and safety at work, and leadership development.

From the beginning, pay and employment equity was a constant focus for the Council, though the activities to promote this were shaped by particular union cases and campaigns and the political environment of the times. The Council took an active part in implementing the Pay and Employment Taskforce Plan of Action from 2004 until the Pay and Employment Equity Unit was closed by the National-led government in 2009. The lodging in 2012 in the Employment Court of the Kristine Bartlett vs Terranova case meant that equal pay/pay equity was solidly back as a key agenda, with a strong campaigning component. In 2019 it was one of the Council’s key strategic goals. 

From 2003 to 2005, the Council was active in the campaign around the right to work-life balance. It had input into It’s about time, a 2004 NZCTU publication outlining practical working arrangements and processes for change, to ensure this right was accessible to all workers.

Working internationally

Every four years, the UN Expert Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women monitors New Zealand’s record in relation to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The Women’s Council submitted on employment issues for working women (Article 11) to NGO Shadow Reports to the Committee, and also commented on the official government reports.

The election of a National-led government in 2008 brought regressive changes to employment law. In 2012 the Council submitted on the detrimental impact on women workers to the CEDAW Committee, which called on New Zealand to undertake ‘an independent evaluation of the gendered impact of the reform of collective bargaining to ensure that it did not negatively affect women’s employment and trade union rights’. [6] Though this evaluation was never carried out, the pre-eminent expert international body’s recognition of how such employment law changes impacted on unionised women was significant.

The Council also took a strong interest in International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions on women’s employment, particularly two critical ones: the ILO C 183 Maternity Convention (2000), and the ILO C 189 Domestic Workers Convention (2011). From 2017, the Council actively supported an international campaign to pass a new ILO Convention on eliminating violence and harassment in the world of work. [7]

Key issues in the 21st century

A key strength of the Women’s Council was its intersectional focus, bringing together the differing experiences of women workers. In particular it highlighted the realities of Māori and Pasifika working women’s experiences in the world of work, including discrimination.

Another important focus was on domestic violence, with the Council leading initiatives to ensure that reducing this was seen as a core union issue. The Women’s Conference moved a remit to the NZCTU Conference in 2011 encouraging male trade union leaders to take a leadership role in activities to reduce domestic violence. [8] In 2017–18, the Council was represented on the coalition group supporting a world-leading law change to enable victims of domestic violence to take leave from their employment. The Domestic Violence – Victims’ Protection Act became law in 2018.

Parental support was a constant concern, covering parental leave, breast-feeding at work and better child-care support. In 2002 the Council worked with Minister for Women’s Affairs Laila Harré to intoduce paid parental leave (although the period set for it was one of the shortest in the developed world). It was active in all the subsequent campaigns, including 26 for Babies, to extend it. 

Building alliances

Connections with women’s groups with shared interests included key relationships with the National Council of Women (NCW), The New Horizons for Women Trust, and the Ministry for Women International Caucus. The Council was represented on the National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women (NACEW) and on various ministerial advisory groups, as well as meeting periodically with the Labour Women’s Caucus. The Council also had representation on the International Trade Union Confederation / Asia Pacific ITUC-AP Women’s Committee, a valued means of fostering international solidarity.

Every two years from 2006 to 2012, the Council took part in the Human Rights Commission’s New Zealand Census of Women’s Participation. [9] Although this did not show the union movement doing well on women’s participation in union leadership, it was a valuable audit tool – if only to show how much work remained to be done. The Council’s own audit in 2018 showed slightly more encouraging results.

NZ Council of Trade Unions

In 2018 the Council secured funding from the 125 Suffrage Fund to make a film on the late nineteenth-century New Zealand trade union leader and suffragist, Harriet Morison. This short film made the connection between Morison’s work, the current equal pay campaign, and wins for working women in Aotearoa New Zealand.

In June 2019 the NZCTU Women’s Council was planning for its biennial conference in September 2019, marking 30 years since its founding. The chosen theme was Wāhine Toa – Organising for Change.

Eileen Brown


 [1] Franks, Peter and Melanie Nolan (eds), Unions in common cause: the New Zealand Federation of Labour 1937–88, Steele Roberts Aotearoa, Wellington, 2011, pp. 17, 208.

[2] Franks and Nolan, 2011, pp. 45, 158–9.

[3] NZ Council of Trade Unions, Constitution and policy, March 1988, p. 41.

[4] NZ Council of Trade Unions, Minutes and report of the first biennial conference held in the Town Hall, Wellington, 18–22 September 1989, p. 99.

[5] Out at Work is the NZCTU network for lesbian, gay, takataapui, bisexual, intersex, transgender and fa’afafine union members. Stand Up is the NZCTU’s representative structure for young workers (up to the age of 35), formerly YUM (Youth Union Movement).

[6] See Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women: Concluding Observations: Employment, 32 (c), 52nd Session, 9-27 July 2012. Available from:

[7] At the 108th ILO session in Geneva in 2019, Report V (2B) put forward the proposed text for a new Convention on the elimination of violence and harassment in the world of work. Available from:

[8] NZCTU, Submission to the Justice and Electoral Select Committee on the Domestic Violence – Victims Protection Bill, Wellington, April 2017,

[9] See Human Rights Commission,

Unpublished sources  

NZCTU Women’s Council records, 1999­–2019, NZCTU Head Office, Wellington

Published sources

NZCTU, It's about time!  – a union guide to work-life balance, NZCTU, Wellington, 2004

Further sources

NZCTU website: