Red Alert

Archive for the ‘Work and Wages’ Category

Topsy turvy world

Posted by on June 14th, 2013

The  extremist faction of the National Party has been pushing John Key’s government to get tougher on workers. A remit passed at a recent National Party conference to allow replacement workers during strikes and lock outs was a reminder that hatred of unions and workers is still very deep seated in John Key’s “moderate” government and party.

John Key was ambivalent about the remit, saying that while the old party faithful called for it from time to time, “it wasn’t on the government’s agenda.”

Enter National MP Jami-lee Ross, with his Employment Relations (Continuity of Labour) Bill, drawn from the ballot this week, which has put the issue on the government’s agenda, whether John Key likes it or not.

There wasn’t much enthusiasm from National Party MPs when the Jami-lee’s bill was announced as coming out of the ballot and I saw a few face-palms!

The Minister of Labour, Simon Bridges wouldn’t give endorsement to the bill and John Key only got as far saying the government would support the bill to Select Committee.

You know why?  It ruins the government’s attempts to downplay the Employment Relations Amendment Bill changes with his insistence they are “moderate, centre right, government changes.”

No they’re not.  They’re very serious.

Then in piles the Employers & Manufacturers Association (EMA), who haven’t exactly had the best reputation for supporting workers’ rights in the past who said today that :

“While its principles are worth exploring it could prove very divisive”…… “New Zealand communities place a high value on fairness and the Bill could have consequences that would be considered unfair”.

There’s a change going on when a prominent business organisation like the EMA is prepared to openly oppose a National MP bill. It  may be a clever play to help downplay the rest of the government’s employment law changes, which are just as unfair and divisive, but I believe there’s more to their unease.

Jami-lee’s bill is a members’ bill.  It has a long way to go through the parliamentary process. It’s a hateful and sinister piece of work, but what’s much more serious are the government’s changes to employment laws.

Submissions have now been called for on the Employment Relations Amendment Bill and these close on the 25th July.

Now, if only the EMA would come out and openly oppose those, we would indeed have a topsy turvy world.


And so it begins

Posted by on June 6th, 2013

“The fact is that a lot of bad things happen to people at work in NZ”

Posted by on May 5th, 2013

That’s a direct quote from the report of the hard hitting and comprehensive Independent Taskforce on Health and Safety, which was released last week.

And here’s another :

Labour market liberalisation in the 1980s and 1990s resulted in a sustained fall in union membership and growth in casual, part-time and short-term employment relationships. This has had enduring implications for the capacity of workers and representatives to engage with employers in managing workplace hazards, and presents ongoing challenges for the regulatory framework. It is likely that this factor influenced omissions from the HSE Act, including the failure to establish a tripartite body and to set obligations requiring employers to have formal worker-participation systems.

The Independent Taskforce members (made up of business, community and union representatives) have done an excellent job. Their report is very challenging, not least for the government, who say they will respond in June.

The report calls for tripartite involvement in the new health and safety agency and proper recognition of the role of unions and worker participation.  It says there needs to be stronger rights for workers who raise health and safety concerns and protection for vulnerable workers, including new workers and those in precarious work.

I’m waiting for Simon Bridges to admit his labour law amendments, announced just a few days before are incompatible with the recommendations of the Health and Safety Taskforce.  The government’s proposed changes to labour law essentially rebadge the Employment Contract Act changes from last century and they will exacerbate the problems identified by the Taskforce. They are even as petty as cutting rest and meal breaks and letting an employer decide if and when they can be taken.  How does that help health and safety?

It’s time to join the dots Simon.

Workers’ rights and health and safety at work go hand in hand. We all agree our workplace death and injury toll is a disgrace.

Please don’t make it worse.


Cutting pay Nat style #2

Posted by on April 29th, 2013

Simon Bridges will try to soothe the path of his Employment Relations Amendment bill by saying it’s about fairness and flexibility. Anyone who opposes will be portrayed as unreasonable and unbalanced.

When things get rocky, he will try to portray the Labour Party as being in the pockets of unions and unions as backwards-looking organisations. It wouldn’t surprise me if we heard more about North Korea and Polish shipyards!

Cutting workers’ pay is easy if you follow the MO of Mr Bridges and the National Government’s new legislation.

1. Increase the minimum wage by the barest of margins ($5.60 a week or 14 cents an hour in real terms since 2009).
2. Make workers vulnerable in their first 90 days of employment, so they don’t raise issues or concerns and have no bargaining power if they want the job.
3. Allow employers to refuse to settle a collective agreement – and the standards that extend to other workers are reduced as well.
4. Pay new workers less than the rate in any collective agreement so pay and conditions are undermined.
5. Enable employers to opt out of industry agreements (MECAs) so they can undercut competitors by paying lower wages – and drive down wages overall.
6. Tax workers if they work to rule rather than carrying on giving the free overtime.
6. Open up competition to small, under resourced competitors by removing rights for vulnerable workers to be transferred in contracting out.

If standards set by collective agreements are lowered, that will affect hundreds of thousands of workers, not just union members. Take for example, four weeks annual leave. That became law under the Labour Alliance government, because unions had bargained it into collective agreements for enough union members to justify extending it to all workers under the Holidays Act. Without that happening, workers would still be sitting on three weeks annual leave.

There will be a lot said in the coming months as Simon Bridges tries to justify these changes, but he shouldn’t assume people are stupid enough to buy his claims that the changes will lift productivity and help businesses grow.

We know they won’t because we’ve done this before under the National Government of the 1990’s. Thanks to similar employment law reforms, the gap between New Zealand wages and those of Australian workers widened and today it is more than 30%.

Watch out New Zealanders.

Paycuts are coming your way.

Cutting pay 101 Nat style

Posted by on April 26th, 2013

New Minister Simon Bridges has done what his predecessor Kate Wilkinson failed to do and that’s to get legislation before Parliament that will cut workers pay.

In doing so, he’s following the directions of his boss John Key who said ages ago he would love to see wages drop.

The legislation Simon Bridges announced today is unnecessary, and fiddles while Rome burns.  It returns to the old Nat ideology : when all else fails have a go at the workers. It’s the old formula dressed up in the language of reasonableness and flexibility.

Many will think this won’t affect them. Next post I will tell you how it will.

Marginalising young workers

Posted by on March 22nd, 2013

This week, the government passed its Minimum Wage (Starting Out Wage) Amendment bill by one vote. The Bill was introduced late last year by Kate Wilkinson before she was sacked and has been taken up with enthusiasm by her replacement, the Hon Simon Bridges.

From 1 May, 16 and 17-year-old workers can be paid 80% of the adult minimum wage ($11.00 an hour) for six months. If they start a new job, they can start again on youth rates, regardless of previous job experience. 18 and 19-year-olds, who may have previously had jobs paying adult wages, can also be paid sub-minimum rates if they have been unfortunate enough to be on a social security benefit for six months, including the invalids benefit and sickness benefit.

Cutting workers’ rights and pay is classic National Party. They’ve already made it impossible for young workers to challenge any unfair treatment and dismissal in the first 90 days of employment, which was supposed to open up thousands of jobs. They have failed to address youth unemployment in any way, shape or form, which is a national scandal. And so, they’re resorting to their tried and failed policies of last century.

The bottom line is this : cutting workers pay does not create jobs. Employers take on workers when there is work to be done, not because they can pay them less. Full stop.

MoBIE openly admitted that it had very little way of telling whether this bill will meet its government’s claim that it will reduce youth unemployment. They came up with a “best guess” that it could create 400 to 1,100 net jobs. I’m wary of these numbers. Who can forget the 2011 Budget projection of 170,000 new jobs by 2015?  Not much sign of that as unemployment continues to rise, more good jobs are lost, and our youth unemployment is up there with the worst in the OECD.

Other advice on the bill was worrying. Treasury suggested that paying sub-minimum wages is something that could be extended in the future to other workers who have a high unemployment rate – so look out Maori and Pasifika workers, or those who live in areas where jobs are scarce. The Ministry of Education warned that youth rates were at odds with the Government’s own stated education goals and would impact on the incomes of working students, thus creating barriers to gaining qualifications.

The Government did not listen to the more than 520 submissions opposed to this bill. It ignored the business community who said youth rates are not a silver bullet and the Government needs to do a lot better on youth unemployment.

It seems to me that the government’s accepted that a low wage, low skill economy is our future, where people are paid less and work longer, where good jobs are off-shored because of a lack of investment and hands-on economic policy and where those who are young and can’t escape overseas to a better life are consigned to economic marginalisation.

Simon says

Posted by on February 27th, 2013

New Labour Minister Simon Bridges had his first outing in question time (other than a patsy from his own side last week).  Mini me answered on behalf of the PM when he answered my question today :

DARIEN FENTON (Labour) to the Prime Minister : Does he stand by his statement that the living wage is “simplistic”?

Hon SIMON BRIDGES (Minister of Labour) on behalf of the Prime Minister: Yes, and for two reasons. The first is that the Family Centre’s living wage of $18.40 an hour is calculated on the basis of a two-adult, two-child family, whereas a lot of low-income earners are in different circumstances—for example, students working part-time. The second reason is that it assumes that paying much higher wages is costless, when it is not—it costs jobs. If all employers in the country paid a minimum wage of $18.40, it would cost an estimated 26,000 jobs.

Darien Fenton: When he said that providing New Zealanders with a living wage is not high on his Government’s agenda, was he saying that Kiwi workers should not expect to make a living from their work while he is Prime Minister?

Hon SIMON BRIDGES: No. Ultimately, above the minimum wage, what is paid is up for employers and their employees to negotiate.

Darien Fenton: Does he believe that the minimum wage of $13.75 an hour is enough for families to live on; if so, why do two out of the five children in poverty come from families in work?

Hon SIMON BRIDGES: What is very clear is that actually there is a range of circumstances. For people on the minimum wage with children, for example, there are a range of packages available to them from the Government. The truth of the matter is that actually our minimum wage, as a proportion of the average wage, is the highest in the developed world.

Darien Fenton: How is it fair that his Government is giving minimum wage workers a measly 25c pay rise, while at the same time it is splashing out on $23 million worth of bonuses for Solid Energy’s management?

Hon SIMON BRIDGES: What is very clear is that having a job is much better than not having one, and we are very conscious, unlike the other party, which does not seem to understand economic fundamentals, that the higher we raise the minimum wage, the more people are put out of jobs—7,000 under your policy.

Darien Fenton: Why is the Prime Minister still insisting that a $15-an-hour minimum wage will cost thousands of jobs when Treasury and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment both say there is little evidence to support this, and his own Minister of Labour said this morning that there is no science behind that argument?

Hon SIMON BRIDGES: It is uncontroversial amongst good economists that the higher the minimum wage goes, the more jobs people do not get. At $15 an hour, it is about 7,000—a town.

My verdict :

Not a bad effort for repeating government lines and economic mythologies about the minimum wage, but not a big step up from the previous Minister, Kate Wilkinson.

Shows a reliance on officials for advice and not much originality in the answers.

Provided some useful lines for the opposition in future debates around work and wages.

Your verdict :

Marks out of 10? 



What killed Ken Callow?

Posted by on February 19th, 2013

Forestry is the most dangerous industry in New Zealand. In 2013 there have already been two deaths. Since 2008, 23 workers have died and almost 900 have been seriously injured. 

A New Zealand forestry worker is 6 times more likely to die at work than a UK forestry worker, and twice as likely as an Australian forestry worker. 

Each death is a family, community, workplace losing someone who was loved. Each injury is someone’s life being changed forever by something that happened at work. 

We need the government and the industry to step up and stop this from happening.

Read more about Ken Callow here. 

Wake up and listen

Posted by on February 15th, 2013

This last week has seen the Living Wage profiled in a way rarely seen of any social movement in recent times. The NZ Herald ran a week long series, Duncan Garner came out as a strong advocate on Radio Live, other journalists picked it up with interviews and stories. Even the Prime Minister took on the language of the Living Wage even if he was trying to diss the notion and tell us all it’s not happening under his government.

Like it or not, the Living Wage movement has hit New Zealand. It’s powerful, it’s growing and will change the narrative not only around work and wages, but around community expectations about how they want and need to live.

While there’s been a lot of publicity around the “rate” of the living wage, announced by the community alliance of the Living Wage Aotearoa NZ, the two day symposium held this week in Auckland was much more than a talk about wages. It was designed to highlight the changing nature of work, the challenges to the norms of defining work and labour, the impact on our communities and the Living Wage movement as a growing community movement in response.

Guy Standing, who I blogged about some time ago, kicked off the seminar with a challenging lecture on “The Precariat – the new dangerous class”. You can find many Guy Standing lectures on Youtube and he’s really worth tuning into. Standing says the old class structures of the 20th century are vanishing (whether we like it or not) and being replaced by new ones – the largest being the growing class of the “precariat” – who have no occupational identity, who work in increasingly precarious arrangements, are expected to do a high ratio of work for labour (ie applying for multiple jobs, filling in forms, travelling to interviews and from job to job) and who, by and large reject the political agendas of the Right and the Left and other established organizations such as unions, simply because they are irrelevant to them.

Then today, Deborah Littman, from London Citizens and now the Metro Vancouver Alliance gave a compelling lecture about the movement in the UK and Canada. If you want to know about why and how, you can watch it here.  If you want to know about the business case and case studies, watch it here.

The overseas movements have grown up over many years, but their experiences and stories provide a lift for our own home grown version as it gathers strength.

New Zealand’s movement is following in their footsteps, building an alliance with unions, faith based and community organisations involved in Living Wage Aotearoa NZ. It’s a different dynamic; not party politically aligned, with no group dominating, with a lot of listening and understanding of how low pay comes at a cost to society as a whole. And then a negotiation through the process of moving to a living wage that provides families with the basic necessities of life, to live with dignity and participate as active citizens in our society.

We need to wake up and listen.

Employment law changes – 6A just part of it

Posted by on October 31st, 2012

Some people seem to think the government has cleverly covered up its employment law changes with its announcement on Part 6A yesterday.

I guess I was assuming people would remember the rest of the changes on employment law were revealed way back in May this year, when a cabinet paper dropped off the back of a truck and the Minister of Labour was forced to confirm the government’s plans – that’s after saying I was making it all up first!  The changes will impact on the pay and conditions of hundreds of thousands of workers whose wages and conditions are set by union agreements – whether or not they join the union. They will contribute to the growing income inequality gap and add to our abysmal child poverty record.

They are the actions of a government that thinks that picking on the workers and unions and driving wages down is the answer to our economic woes.

Here’s a summary of the changes I did back in May.

We have yet to see legislation – but there will be strong opposition from me and Labour.

And for the record – Labour will repeal these changes – I didn’t think I needed to say it, but apparently I do.


About Part 6A

Posted by on October 27th, 2012

We’ve known since May how the government plans to cut wages further when a leaked Cabinet paper forced the Minister of Labour to announce their proposals to weaken collective bargaining laws.

But since then, there’s been delay after delay, and while most of the government’s proposed employment law changes have been settled for some time now, Part 6A of the Employment Relations Act, the important provision that provides protection to vulnerable workers in situations of employer change has gone back and forth to Cabinet.  It looks like we will see the Government’s decision pretty soon ; Cabinet is due to consider the final paper, which includes Part 6A and Kate Wilkinson confirmed last week that the changes will be introduced before Xmas.

Part 6A of the Employment Relations Act was hard won and I hope won’t be lightly pushed aside by the government.

In 1999,  members of the Service and Food Workers Union began a campaign called “Contract Workers Count” out of concern for those employed by private contractors in public hospitals, commercial cleaning, catering, security and rest homes. Over the previous ten years, these low paid workers had suffered multiple changes of contractors and each time, their jobs were up for grabs and their hours and wages reduced as the competitive pressure in these industries landed on the wage costs.

Five years later, the Labour government passed Part 6A into law which enables “vulnerable employees” to follow their work if it is transferred to a new employer, (where the business is sold or their employer loses a contract to another employer). The affected workers in this situation can elect to transfer their employment to the new employer, taking their current terms and conditions, service and accrued entitlements with them.

Undoubtedly, there’s been some disputes over part 6A, but the Courts have sorted that out – although obviously not to the satisfaction of some companies, who would rather see the return to the dog eat dog approach of competitive tendering of the past.

The most important thing to remember is that part 6A applies to a particularly vulnerable group of workers.  They are not well paid; many are on minimum wage or just above.  Take Parliament’s cleaners. Parliamentary Services is going through a re-tendering process right now and is under pressure to cut costs. Without the right to transfer to a new contractor that Part 6A provides, John Key’s cleaner could be sacked and replaced with someone else employed on fewer hours and less pay.

However, I fear that the decisions around Part 6A will not be good news.

I live in hope that the government will not succumb to pressure and take their ideology out on the cleaners, kitchen workers and other vulnerable workers of our land.

Contract Workers still Count.

Hey, this is my job!

Posted by on September 6th, 2012

I find this website having a go at the Minister of Labour pretty ironic. I thought that was my job!

Crest Clean have been whinging for some time now about Part 6A of the Employment Relations Act, which requires them to employ the existing cleaners if they take over a cleaning contract. There’s been a couple of court cases, and more pending, I’m told. They’ve been on a letter writing crusade to all MPs and endeavoured to get support from other Cleaning Services Companies. The Minister was supposed to review Part 6A by the end of 2010, so she’s been a bit slack in reporting back to parliament.

There will be changes to part 6A in the Employment Relations Amendment Bill which is due to be tabled sometime this year, but I don’t believe the changes will satisfy Crest Clean. This website is yet another self serving go from Crest Clean to change the law in their favour – you can see on the website how busy they’ve been. I hope the Minister takes no notice.

Love the pic though.

The migrant worker exploitation morass

Posted by on August 19th, 2012

The exploitation of migrant workers has been in the news over the past week and TV1 has done a good job exposing what I believe is just the tip of the iceberg.

This is a problem not just confined a few migrant owned restaurants.  In the last week, I’ve had contacts from people in the home-care industry, the agricultural industry, the construction industry, the tourism industry and people in trades. While some have been migrants, I’ve heard a lot from other workers and businesses who are saying they simply can’t compete where this kind of blatant law breaking is happening.

It’s not only about paying below minimum wage either.  Burger King, the multinational owned business is being taken to the Employment Authority by Unite Union for alleged union busting and discrimination against migrant workers. There’s a litany of stories like this in the migrant community.

The Minister of Labour has ordered a crackdown. That’s good, but it will take an army of Labour Inspectors that our Department of Labour resources won’t run to, especially as they are currently embroiled in the creation of Steven Joyce’s mega ministry monster, MoBIE.  Someone today told me that they have waited seven months to hear back about a case of clear minimum wage breach for a group of migrant workers who were brave enough to seek help.

No-one knows how deep this morass is. I think stamping this out is going to take some effort from of all of us.  We have to expose the poor treatment of migrants and we have to demand action.

I will be.

Planet Reality

Posted by on July 23rd, 2012

When the National Party talks about Planet Labour, they think they are being very funny. Actually, I believe they’re the ones living on another planet, and it’s certainly not Planet Reality.

I just met a couple of great women who know Planet Reality. They are caregivers in an aged care facility, which includes a dementia unit, some with years of service. Most of them are on minimum wage.

They and their fellow workers were on strike three days last week to get a collective agreement. They haven’t had one since the Home was sold by the Baptists to a private owner in 1997.

They want a pay scale that recognises their experience, skill and service, that isn’t dependent on minimum wage movements or the will of the boss. They want a way to ensure that taxpayer funded increases are passed onto the workers when they are intended to be.

They’ve been bargaining with their employer since last October. They’ve been in mediated bargaining since February. They’ve done everything they can under the law to get their employer to agree to a new agreement and they will do more – at least while they still can.

The government’s going to change the law so employers don’t have to keep bargaining. When they’ve had enough, they can say, that’s it, had enough, bargaining over. Bad luck. Back onto your individual contracts where you belong.

Minister Wilkinson tries to soft soap this by saying this change will return the law to how it was under Labour until 2004. But the law was changed because some employers were “surface bargaining” – going through the motions until they could pull the plug by saying bargaining was concluded.

I know this doesn’t mean much to a lot of people. It certainly means nothing to those who don’t understand the realities of low wage workers and how hard it is to get a collective agreement settled when your employer doesn’t want a union on the job, because it’s a whole lot easier to have all the power.

I just hope these women get a deal before Wilkinson manages to get the law changes before parliament.

Carers wages – enlightened or archaic?

Posted by on May 27th, 2012

A very courageous report from HRC equal employment opportunities commissioner Dr Judy McGregor was released today. This exceptional woman worked undercover in the elder care industry to find out for herself what is happening. We need more of this. There is too much pontificating from so-called experts who never get down and dirty and find out the real story.  If they did, they might be giving different advice to the government.

Dr McGregor’s report describes the work of aged care workers as a form of modern-day slavery.

It offends against human decency. The reliance on the emotional umbilical cord between women working as carers and the older people they care for at $13-$14 an hour is a form of modern-day slavery. It exploits the goodwill of women, it is a knowing exploitation. We can claim neither ignorance nor amnesia.

McGregor goes on to question why DHBs pay equivalent health care workers in the Public Health Sector up to $5 an hour more, when both hospitals and aged care are funded by the government.

There’s a structural and legislative answer to that. Years ago, before the National Government of the 1990’s, there was an industry award for Aged Care workers (and Hospital Caregivers), but that was decimated with the labour market reforms in 1990. Thousands of aged care workers in the sector lost their minimum pay rates, overtime pay, weekend penal rates and qualification allowances. Over time, Religious and Welfare organisations (who weren’t perfect, by the way) exited, handing the sector over to international corporates who dominate aged care today.

So,what did Labour in government do?  We changed the Employment Relations Act to enable multi-employer collective bargaining. That helped workers in the Public Hospital Sector, who managed to win multi-employer agreements. But it wasn’t enough for workers in Age Care, who are mainly women and part-time workers on low wages. Corporates resisted collective bargaining. Ryman Healthcare, for example. who has reported a huge profit, successfully evaded the collective bargaining requirements of the Employment Relations Act, reportedly paying up to $300 an hour for an advocate to sit at the table stymying good faith requirements.

Labour’s insistence that DHBs pass on targeted funding to providers giving an increase of $1 an hour to aged care workers ended up in Court. Some workers got the money ; others didn’t. The behaviour of the sector has demonstrated there is much more needed. Our 2011 work and wages policies for industry agreements would have made a difference, but one-eyed commentators from mainstream media didn’t get the picture.

Maybe they will now, when they understand that the reliance on the goodwill and commitment of low paid workers doesn’t mean better wages and conditions.

I’m hoping that if Judy McGregor talks to Kate Wilkinson soon she will explain that the government’s plans for  big reforms to collective bargaining will make it worse, not better for aged care workers.

Like it or not, there’s no way this issue can be separated from the rights of aged care workers to have a voice, to collectively bargain and for a fair rate across the industry to be set – as it once used to be, in, according to National and some media commentators, the dark old days.

Doesn’t seem so archaic to me.

Living Wage – now part of the debate

Posted by on May 23rd, 2012

lwlogoThe Living Wage campaign launched in Auckland today was attended by around 200 workers, community groups and faith based organisations.  Around 60 organisations so far have signed up to this pledge :

A living wage is the income necessary to provide workers and their families with the basic necessities of life. A living wage will enable workers to live with dignity and to participate as active citizens in society.  We call upon the Government, employers and society as a whole, to strive for a living wage for all households as a necessary and important step in the reduction of poverty in New Zealand.

Many more will join this campaign over the coming months and you will hear more about it.  It will help create a new discourse in New Zealand about poverty and inequality and how low wages are affecting our families and society.  It will contribute to the debate that is growing around austerity economics vs growth, not only in New Zealand, but in many other countries.

But it’s not only a discussion for workers, unions and communities.  It’s a political issue that needs to be part of the budget debate over the next few weeks.

We need to discover a better New Zealand, where, as one of the speakers said today, the economy is made for the people, not people made for the economy.

If you want to know more, listen to Red Alert Radio tomorrow at 9.05am where I talk to Annie Newman, Campaign Co-ordinator about the Living Wage Campaign.

Dog Eat Dog

Posted by on May 20th, 2012

Last week’s ACTU congress had a focus on insecure work, with their independent report (Lives on Hold, Unlocking the Potential of Australia’s Workforce) taking centre stage. It’s a thoughtful and well researched contribution to the increasing use of non standard work, and the alienation of so many workers from that basic value we share with Australia : a fair days pay for a fair days work.

There’s so much in this report that would ring bells in New Zealand. Here’s what Kathy says :

“I have had 40 jobs with 20 different agencies/ labour hire over the past year. They tell me it could lead to permanent employment but it never does. We are always let go and sent somewhere else at the end of our three-month trial. We are made to feel disposable and some places I am sent to the managers and employees say ‘Oh you’re just a casual’. This might be true but I still need to eat! I am always negotiating with the bank around my mortgage because I can’t lock in secure work.”

It’s a discussion we should be having in New Zealand, but instead the NZ government is about to embark on a wholesale attack on the very heart of our employment relations system. Rather than attacking basic rights, wouldn’t it be great to be debating and implementing creative, progressive reforms?  Wouldn’t it be great to have an inclusive society that provides sustainable and decent work for all, that strikes a balance between maintaining economic competitiveness and security for NZ working people?

Sure, the Aussies have their problems, but they are looking ahead. They’re talking about it.

In New Zealand, the government is nurturing a dog eat dog attitude.

It’s your fault if you aren’t on top and for goodness sake, don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

Let it be known everywhere

Posted by on May 15th, 2012

Last week, a couple of papers fell off the back of a truck which were of particular interest to Kiwi workers. They outlined the government’s changes to labour laws and gave the Department of Labour’s assessment and warnings about the consequences of the government’s changes.

I thought the Minister of Labour would get the hint that Labour knew more than she was telling when I asked her a question in the House last Wednesday. Then in my speech on Tau Henare’s strike ballot bill I outlined the stupidity of her government’s proposals in regard to pay reductions for partial strikes – and she was in the House listening.

So I was gobsmacked that when the papers were revealed in the Dompost, Kate Wilkinson suggested that I had made them up. Later that day, the government was forced to come clean and made the announcements I knew were coming.

The changes will systematically take apart our labour relations framework, part by part and clause by clause. Our employment law will still be called the Employment Relations Act, but the worst provisions of that most draconian of employment laws from the 1990’s, the Employment Contracts Act will replace much of it. They will do nothing to address the most volatile industrial relations environment we’ve seen in NZ in years, and will definitely do nothing to increase wages and provide decent work.

The government is couching their plans in the Crosby Textor language of “choice, balance, flexibility” and are described as “minor” by the PM John Key.

That’s rubbish. We’ve got a wages crisis in New Zealand and that’s because our employment relations system isn’t working to ensure fairness for working people. The government’s changes will make this worse.

Last week, when we were debating Tau Henare’s secret ballots for strikes bill (which has now passed and will soon become law), National Party MPs indulged themselves in an outburst of the “free at last” quote from Martin Luther King.

Well, that great man died in Memphis when he was attending a struggle for the right of public workers to have a union and to collectively bargain.

King declared : “Let it be known everywhere, that along with wages and all of the other securities that you are struggling for, you are also struggling for the right to organise and be recognised.” The key issues for the Memphis strikers were their demands that the City of Memphis grant collective bargaining rights and the collection of union fees.

I’m taking bets on how many National MPs stand up and quote Martin Luther King on collective bargaining and workers rights when these miserable changes come to the Parliament.

And let it be known everywhere : Labour will oppose these changes vigorously and determinedly.

Living Wage – an idea whose time has come?

Posted by on April 20th, 2012

Who described the Living Wage as “an idea whose time has come?”

David Cameron, Conservative British PM – that’s who.

The Living Wage concept has caught on in the UK and the US and it was great to hear David Shearer put Labour’s name to it yesterday.

Everyone wants to know who, how, how much and when. But the Living Wage concept isn’t just about having a policy on paper. It’s about a movement, where communities organise to persuade the people, politicians, the council and business that paying a living wage is the right thing to do.

A Living Wage is the level of income necessary to provide acceptable standard of living for a person and their family.

It’s different to the legal minimum wage, which provides a floor below which wages must not fall, but the minimum wage is not tied to a recognised standard of living. It’s a politically decided standard, that rises or falls depending on who is in government.  Labour remains committed to lifting the minimum wage (at this stage to $15 an hour), but we can do better.

We need to get to a point where there is agreement about what is fair and what families should be expected to live on.

In the UK, London Citizens have been organising for ten years, bringing together community groups, faith based organisations, businesses, trade unions and politicians. In 2011, Citizens UK, (the nationwide equivalent of London Citizens) launched the Living Wage Foundation to respond to a growing interest in other cities.

The Living Wage  was an election issue in the 2004 London Council elections, and London Mayor, “Red” Ken Livingstone established a dedictaed Living Wage Unit within the Greater London Authority in 2004. Boris Johnson, the conservative Mayor who followed him has continued the Unit and now all of London’s councils pay all workers, including directly employed, contracted or temporary workers at least the London Living Wage or above.

This year’s London Olympics will be the first Living Wage Olympics in history. Imagine that.

Governments can lead by applying a Living Wage to everyone who works for the State Sector. Councils can do the same on the basis that wherever public money is used to purchase goods or services, low wages should not be the competitive factor. In the US Living Wage Ordinances apply this principal.

The current London Living Wage of £8.30 an hour would roughly equate to roughly NZ$16-17 an hour. This took into account the prices of staple items in the family shopping basket, along with relativities with the median income, to estimate a ‘poverty threshold wage’, and then added a 15% margin on top to give some protection against unforeseen events.

Of course such an example can only broadly indicative – but it demonstrates just why a Living Wage, not just a Minimum Wage is needed.

I’m confident that a Living Wage movement will develop in New Zealand and the hows, the whats, the whos, the how muches, and all the rest of it will gather force before the next election. It will need political support, and Labour’s David Shearer has given it.

I’m not given to quoting conservatives, but as David Cameron said, it’s an idea whose time has come.

David Shearer’s speech #2

Posted by on April 19th, 2012

countryworks_newsLabour leader David Shearer made his second major “scene setting” speech in Nelson today and outlined Labour’s support for the introduction of a “living wage” movement in New Zealand to pay people what they need to live on, rather than just sticking to the minimum wage.  Here’s some excerpts :

Here in New Zealand we have been working harder than almost anyone in the developed world. But it’s not paying off.

We are trying to succeed by squeezing more out of people, by paying lower wages than other countries and working longer hours than them. When people tell me they’re actually working harder for less, I believe them.

Hundreds of thousands of honest individuals get out of bed each day and go to work, and they cannot get ahead. Take the rest home workers who earn eleven cents an hour above the minimum wage doing a really important job – looking after our parents in the years in need.

They’re playing by the rules, doing their bit. And yet how do they raise a family on eleven cents more than the minimum wage?

Take the skilled contractor or the owner of a small business who risks everything to raise the capital they need to buy equipment or a van, take on staff or subbies. I want them to know someone is on their side, and to feel hopeful that our economy is working for them just as hard as they are working.

I want them to know someone is on their side, and to feel hopeful that our economy is working for them just as hard as they are working.

Then he unpicks the productivity vs wage argument :

The average wage in 1989, in today’s dollars, was $21.49. By 2011, it had reached $24.43. But if wages grew as much as productivity for the twenty-two years up to 2011, then the hourly rate would have been $31.85. That’s an extra seven dollars an hour, or $297 a week that the average worker earned but didn’t get paid. How many people would be wanting to go to Australia as they are now in record numbers if we paid that?

And the idea of a Living Wage :

Imagine if we could create a New Zealand where everyone could earn enough to provide a good living for their family. That’s not the case now.

One emerging idea I’m interested in is the Living Wage. It’s the amount a person needs to earn to provide for themselves and a family. It’s started to catch on London since 2004 when the London mayor set up a unit that works out the Living Wage level each year. Over time, as finances allowed, Council gradually began to pay the Living Wage level. Now some businesses that contract with the Council have agreed to pay it too, whether they hire direct employees, contractors, or temporary staff.

And on the National government’s approach to our future :

We can’t cut our way to prosperity. Zero budgets are what you get when you fail. How many people would be wanting to go to Australia as they are now in record numbers if we paid that.  Surely lifting everyone up must be the point of economic growth, or why do we bother?”

And a message to New Zealand working people :

The message I want to give the thousands of New Zealanders who go to work every day, look after their kids and do the right thing, is this:

Labour will deliver for you. Under Labour you will be our priority. We want the country to work for you.