Labour force data indicates Pacific workers are the lowest paid across the country and the pay gap between Pākehā men and Pacific women in the public sector is 27 percent, the commission says.
Its new report, Talanoa: Human rights issues for Pacific peoples in Aotearoa New Zealand, heard from Pacific workers who said they were "often overlooked for upskilling opportunities and promotions. These workers also fear retaliation in raising concerns with their employers", the commission said.
Equal employment opportunities commissioner Saunoamaali'i Karanina Sumeo told Morning Report the problem was persistent and misunderstood.
"The inquiry is to look at the Pacific pay gap which we know is something which is quite persistent. We know Pacific people are paid less than other ethnic groups by comparison and we want to understand the extent of the problem but also hear from Pacific people in terms of their workplaces to try to identify the problem and to do something about it," Sumeo said.
"Then we want government and unions and businesses to take that knowledge on board and address this inequity."
Sumeo wanted the public to be aware of the ethnic pay gap.
"There appears to be a lack of recognition that we have this issue. It is linked to racial discrimination... We need urgent action... we are escalating it to this level to get the urgency and the mobility and the buy-in of businesses and unions and government to address this inequity."
Lawyer and unionist Lisa Meto Fox told Midday Report the "ultimate goal" was to eradicate the ethnic pay gap altogether.
"There has been some recent research just in the last couple of months by Dr Heather Came, who was the lead researcher on a report about the DHBs and the public service and the pay gap there and one of the things those researchers pointed out was HR teams are a big problem.
"HR teams are predominantly made up by middle class Pākehā women and they are usually the entry point to an organisation for recruitment and can also be involved in promotions so diversifying those HR teams is going to be a big help, and also some anti-racism training for those HR teams.
"There's also been some other research led by Tara McCallister and some other Māori and Pacific researchers just in the last week ... and that was about the ethnic pay gap within the institutions - the universities of New Zealand actually, and what it showed is it is racism. Pure and simple racism...
"I think that first and foremost, organisations need to accept that they are institutionally racist and from there they need to take actions to become anti-racist."
Meto Fox hoped there would be action on the ethnic pay gap in this term of Parliament but she "would not necessarily say I am confident".
However, she noted there had been some progress on reducing the pay gap over the past five years.
The Human Rights Commission said the pay gap inquiry would look into the "nature and extent of discrimination experienced by Pacific workers regarding employment in the manufacturing and retail, trade and accommodation sectors across the country.
"Other aspects of the inquiry will focus on equal pay, pay parity, and pay equity issues, working conditions, recruitment, and retention of Pacific workers as they impact equal employment opportunities.
"The commission hopes to make recommendations on changes to legislation, regulations, policies, practices, procedures, and funding arrangements in the public and private sectors to ensure the reduction of pay gaps are progressed in New Zealand."
The inquiry will be conducted over 12 months and is expected to begin in early 2021.