Football ferns fight for fair conditions

As New Zealand Football gears up to bid for the 2023 Women’s World Cup, the union representing its players is preparing for its own battle – equal terms and conditions for both male and female players. Shane Cowlishaw reports.

New Zealand’s professional footballers are seeking an agreement that both male and female players be treated equally, a deal that if agreed to would be a global first for the sport.

The trade union representing 129 of the country’s players, the New Zealand Professional Footballers Association (NZPFA), has initiated bargaining for a collective agreement that would secure equal terms and conditions such as even travel benefits for both sexes.

It would also see the disclosure of what plans are in place to develop the women’s game and an acceptance by New Zealand Football of its obligations under FIFA’s Code of Ethics, which stipulates that spending on women’s football should not be linked to revenue generated.

The announcement comes just days before the men’s team, the All Whites, take on Peru in the first leg of a World Cup playoff at Wellington’s Westpac Stadium on Saturday and amid calls for New Zealand Rugby to increase the remuneration of the world champion Black Ferns.

Qualifying for the sport’s showcase event would bring New Zealand Football a $14 million windfall and the organisation has already warned of the financial repercussions of not attending.

“New Zealand Football is lucky they are being asked to discuss and negotiate this rather than being taken through the courts because they don’t have a leg to stand on.”

How the bargaining will be dealt with by New Zealand Football will be telling.

Will the often cash-strapped organisation agree to the proposal with little fuss, or continue to hold on to the argument that the women’s game generates too little revenue to warrant the extra cost?

New Zealand football media and communications manager Peter Thornton said no comment would be made as employment negotiations were confidential.

In the past few years, several common benefits have already been negotiated for the two teams that include a daily payment of $115 for players and a share of 40 percent of any FIFA prize money won.

But the only income many of New Zealand’s top female footballers earn is the daily payment for the six to eight weeks they are together a year, a pittance that has seen a number of players applying for hardship grants or retiring from the game including Abby Erceg, Katie Duncan, and Jasmine Pereira, who was just 21.

Lawyer Victoria Casey QC, a leading expert in human rights and pay equality, said she was “gobsmacked” after being told of the situation.

While there was still a pay differential between men and women, it had long been the case that different genders could not be offered different contracts for the same work, Casey said.

“When I first heard about this issue in the past couple of weeks, not being involved in the sport, I was quite startled that there would be a situation where men and women were being offered different terms and conditions because of their gender, it’s something out of the last century, to be honest.

“New Zealand Football is lucky they are being asked to discuss and negotiate this rather than being taken through the courts because they don’t have a leg to stand on.”

If New Zealand Football’s objective was to raise the profile of the sport across the board rather than simply make money, there was no incentive for it to prioritise the men’s game over the women’s, she said.

Where to from here?

Even if New Zealand Football agrees to the requested terms, there remains a huge global financial gulf between the male and female games.

While all New Zealand players receive a 40 percent share of any prize winnings there is a stark difference between the two pots.

For example, FIFA awards prize money of US$400 million for the men’s World Cup but only $15m for the women’s equivalent. And while male professional players can earn millions playing club football, the salary in a European women’s league is only about $30,000.

Earlier this year the world players’ union FIFPro conducted a survey of conditions in women’s football and found 87 percent of players would consider quitting football early while two-thirds of national team players were unsatisfied about tournament prize money.

“It’s hard to take when we put in the same amount of hours and sacrifice, we train four to five times a week and it’s exactly what our male counterparts would do, we just want to be seen as equal.”

Half were not paid by their clubs, while 35 percent were not paid for representing their country.

The pay disparity has been acknowledged by New Zealand’s male players, who are supportive of the bargaining.

All Whites’ striker Chris Wood, who is also a member of the NZPFA, said he had a keen understanding of the issue through his sister Chelsey’s experience.

“She went to two Under 20 World Cups and is one of the best players of her generation. The road for her to success was so much harder because she was a woman – playing in a part of the game which isn’t as highly regarded, or supported, as it should be.

“What we are trying to do is just a small step. But it might just cause a ripple that people sit up and notice – and all the lads are 100 percent behind that.”

The successful negotiation of the agreement would be a huge global step and another logical move could be the introduction of a maternity/early childcare policy for the sport.

In Australia, such an agreement has just been negotiated for players competing in the Westfield W-League.

It includes the provision of a single room and airfare for a child travelling with the player and for contract payments to continue in the event of a pregnancy.

New Zealand-born Katie Gill, who has played more than 80 games for the Australian women’s team and is player relations executive for Professional Footballers Australia, said the clause would not cost a huge amount of money but had significant meaning.

Female players from around the world would be watching how the New Zealand negotiations played out and it would be fantastic if it was agreed to, Gill said.

A survey of Australian players had found there was a huge drop-off from the sport at around the 24-25 age as people began questioning whether it was financially viable to continue, she said.

For current Football Ferns player Annalie Longo, the agreement would go a long way to easing the difficulties representing her country entailed.

New Zealand-based, Longo works full-time for Mainland Football while fitting in the rigours of training for international competition.

It had been difficult to see some of her talented teammates step away from the game because of a lack of financial support, especially when their male counterparts earned so much more.

“It’s hard to take when we put in the same amount of hours and sacrifice, we train four to five times a week and it’s exactly what our male counterparts would do, we just want to be seen as equal,” Longo said.

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