In January, a courier driver was killed in Taranaki, and many of his workmates went public saying that the industry is so squeezed the drivers have no choice but to work long hours and take risks on the roads. Even some owners of the industry agree that the lack of standards in their industry and dog-eat-dog competitive tendering make the industry unsafe and unsustainable.
Many companies are using contracting to avoid labour rights and it’s worth it to them. They have few obligations to the worker, the contractors can’t associate together and collectively bargain without flouting NZ competition law, they get no paid holidays, sick leave, public holiday pay or minimum wage. If the job is lost, the worker takes all the risk and consequences.
The most recent examples are the Pike River Mine contractors, whose families faced not only the loss of their loved one, but also the loss of all money owed to the contractor and his employees – and the workers in the film and video production industries, who, thanks to the government’s panic over the Hobbit, now don’t even have the right to contest whether they are contractors or employees under the law.
One courier driver I talked with told me that he started the process of going to Court to argue he and his workmates were employees, not contractors. Many thousands of lawyer’s fees later, he got an agreement in mediation to have an in-house disputes process and a representation clause in their contracts, which was soon shelved by the company. He couldn’t afford to take it further, even although the company dictates the runs which can require working up to seven days a week, badges their vans so they can’t be used for other work, impose 12 month contracts with no right of renewal and regularly changes or reduces the rates.
There was a very good article by lawyer Helen White last week in the NZ Herald, entitled “employers finding ways around job law”. She says that
Our society is failing to protect those who need it because it is not recognising the use of a particular breed of “contractor” – those who are not truly independent but who often contract to work exclusively for a single enterprise and finance their equipment through the company they are contracted to. In actually, suh contractors are far less “dependent” than employees because they stand to lose more if terminated.
Sure, many contractors are happily independent and don’t want it any other way. I’m not concerned about them.
But I am concerned that many companies and even government enterprises are increasingly contracting workers to avoid employment rights and ultimately, this undermines fundamental protections for all workers.