New Zealand has international obligations regarding equality at work that have not yet been properly met. The country also has domestic obligations to promote the human rights and the economic, social and political wellbeing of all New Zealanders.

This literature review summarises key international trends in equality frameworks, with a focus on English-speaking nations. Themes include:

Equal employment opportunities (EEO) has two components: a positive duty to promote diversity at work; and preventing discrimination. Despite some major success stories, inequalities remain and appear to be entrenched. In particular, vulnerable groups such as women, Māori, Pacific peoples, other ethnic minorities and persons with disabilities have not yet achieved equality in the workforce. Both young people and older people experience discrimination and lack of opportunities in the workplace. The resolution of individual discrimination cases can only play a small part in addressing systemic inequalities.

Promoting equal pay – this includes improving the effectiveness of equal pay legislation and legislating in favour of equal pay for work of equal value (pay equity). Most developed nations, including the UK, Australia and some provinces of Canada, now have pay equity legislation.

Fairness, special treatment and positive action. Not all equal treatment is fair, and not all unequal treatment is unfair. Fair treatment can include special measures to overcome a disadvantage. In New Zealand special measures (positive action) are permissible under the Human Rights Act if persons or groups need assistance or advancement in order to achieve an equal place with other members of the community. Under the current UK legislation, all employers may choose to preferentially appoint or promote target group members who are equally qualified if this increases diversity at work. Special treatment of disabled people and pregnant women to help them improve their work performance is not ruled to be discriminatory.

Equality at work for target groups and for all. Whilst still protecting the target groups from discrimination, there is also a move in the UK towards ‘equality for all’. For example, men are explicitly entitled to equal opportunities at work and equal rights in negotiating flexible working. Similar moves have been strongly recommended for Australia.

Transparency about pay and opportunities. Lack of transparency about pay and criteria for progression makes equality and anti-discrimination difficult. There are now international moves towards greater transparency about pay and prospects.

Changes in the organisation of work. The labour force has changed considerably in the past 40 years. Increasingly, employees want flexible work. Some unpaid carers can now request flexibility in their paid job. However, other groups of workers including fathers, younger employees and older workers may wish to work flexibly. The extension to all employees of the right to request flexible work is being considered in New Zealand. Under new UK legislation, flexible work can be requested by all employees. There are recommendations in Australia that eligibility to request flexible work be extended.