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It’s past time for fair employment laws

Written By: - Date published: 1:53 pm, February 8th, 2014 - 35 comments
Categories: david cunliffe, Economy, employment, labour, Politics, Unions, workers' rights - Tags:

CUNLIFFE_SOTN_460x230After David Cunliffe’s state of the nation speech at the end of January, the spotlight was, appropriately, on the big policy announcement he made: the Best Start package for Kiwi kids.  (It wasn’t the friendliest spotlight, unfortunately.)

But there was a sentence at the end which hasn’t had a lot of pickup, and which could – I hope – point at a truly revolutionary policy on the horizon.

David said:

There will be opportunities in all our regions and decent work based on fair employment laws.

Fair employment laws.  We haven’t had a lot of that lately.  The ability of workers to organise and to bargain collectively – the best way in the world to raise wages and conditions – was shattered by the Employment Contracts Act, and while Labour’s Employment Relations Act repaired some of the damage, you can still see the effects today.

We’ve got a society where you have to be hush-hush about what you get paid because your co-workers are competition, not colleagues.

We’ve got a society where there’s a myth around individual agreements – they give you the chance to negotiate the best contract for you!  Maybe that works for the senior managers, or for people with really specialised skills, but for your average clerical worker or shop hand?  Here’s the agreement, take it or leave it – and oh yes, you’re on a 90-day trial.

And we’ve got a society where people don’t know their rights at work – or don’t have the power to stand up for those rights – and certainly don’t have the resources to hold bad employers to account.

National have introduced 90-day trials, youth rates, and now they have a bill going through the House which will take away the right to rest breaks, protection for vulnerable workers,  and weaken your ability to challenge unfair dismissals.

And let’s not forget Jami-Lee Ross’ private members bill – which was supported by National and Act at the first reading, but fortunately failed – which would have allowed employers to lock out workers and bring in temporary labour.  Effectively, starving the workers out until they accept whatever deal the employer deigned to offer.

National’s unfair employment laws benefit a few at the top – the bosses who are happy to turn a profit by grinding their workers down.  But that’s no basis for a happy, healthy society, and a strong, growing economy.

I think the argument’s simple enough: when people are earning enough to meet their needs, when they feel respected, when they’re getting ahead under their own steam, we all benefit.  Individuals benefit from less stressful lives.  Employers benefit from having a more productive team at work.  Our families and communities benefit.

A Labour-Green coalition in 2014 can build a completely new framework for industrial relations in New Zealand.  A framework where everyone gets treated with real fairness and dignity, and which recognises that there’s a basic power imbalance between workers and employers, especially in the hard financial times when unemployment is high.

And I can’t wait to hear more about how they’re going to make that happen.

Stephanie Rodgers is a communicator who lives in Wellington with her partner and two guinea pigs.  One of them was once the Dominion Post’s Pet of the Day (the guinea pigs, not her partner).  She is a communications officer at the EPMU and member of the Labour Party, but blogs in a personal capacity in her own time.  Opinions are her own.

35 comments on “It’s past time for fair employment laws ”

  1. mickysavage 1

    Greetings Steph.

    Well said. It seems so long ago that the ECA was enacted and New Zealand started that long gradual decline in the quality of wages and conditions. It will be interesting to see what Labour propose and to see National’s response. Because they do not seem to understand when things have gone far enough in their supporter’s favour …

  2. blue leopard (Get Lost GCSB Bill) 2

    Ah great article, thanks Stephanie Rodgers.

    Cunliffe’s speech and the spotlight being on the Best Start policy without taking into account the other aims and intentions he mentioned in the speech did tend to take the Best Start policy out of context; the more people who have good jobs that actually cover their living costs the less welfare people will need.

    This simple fact, that jobs need to cover living costs, appears to be very difficult for people to grasp – perhaps it needs to be highlighted by repeating ad infinitum?

    – Perhaps then people will understand why it is good for all that jobs provide a sufficient amount of money for peoples’ lives.

    – Perhaps then people will stop listening to those spouting forth disingenuous reasons for keeping wages and low?

  3. One Anonymous Bloke 3

    It’s a no-brainer – do we want a high-waged economy or not?

    • Polish Pride 3.1

      Nope – I’d rather live in a system that has the goal of freeing people from having to work in order to survive.

      • One Anonymous Bloke 3.1.1

        What exactly do you think higher wages mean to people?

        Let me see if I can put this in simple enough terms.

        Jack needs $300 per week to “survive”. He can take job (a), which pays $15 per hour, or job (b), which pays $50 per hour.

        Jack wants to do as little work as possible to survive. Which job should he pick, (a), or (b)?

        • blue leopard (Get Lost GCSB Bill) 3.1.1.1

          ….Polish Pride appears to be struggling with this one, so I will assist in driving the point home

          It is option b – Jack would pick option b if he wanted to have a chance of working less hours in order to survive.

          It is a no-brainer that a high-waged economy is a better option for a greater number of people.

          🙂

  4. Ad 4

    Into it Steph!

    I am perplexed by how easy it is for tourists to get work visas, set up bank accounts, ird numbers, get into Kiwisaver, then when they leave get their income tax handed back to them.

    I’m sure it’s entrepreneurially great, but surely a little resistance (say a month before they get one) would enable a preference for Resident or NZ citizen workers? This seems to bother a lot of people I talk to in fruit or grape provinces.

  5. Flip 5

    Thanks Stephanie. I’m also waiting with interest on Labours employment policies. I’d be happy to see legislation to ensure that companies distribute income more fairly to workers. Not sure though that collective bargaining is the answer to achieve that though. I’d like to see a link between top income and bottom incomes to ensure that all employees incomes are raised when a company does well sustainably.

    There are numerous controls that should be placed on boards as they are only acting in the interests of owners not other stakeholders like employees and society or the environment. That imbalance needs to be addressed.

    • One Anonymous Bloke 5.1

      Legislation to ensure that companies distribute income more fairly to workers would certainly take a lot of the venom out of industrial relations disputes.

      I suggest you have a look at Bruce Sheppard’s criticisms of diversified portfolio theory before assuming that boards work in company owners’ interests.

      PS: briefly, in my limited understanding, because majority shareholders are usually pension funds and the like, there is too little attention paid by the owners, and boards get away with murder, or at least, larceny.

    • Stephanie Rodgers 5.2

      There are a lot of things which could be done, and your suggestions are good. But I think it’s important that the right to bargain collectively is firmly entrenched. It’s historically the best, most proven way of ensuring workers are paid better and treated more equally.

      • One Anonymous Bloke 5.2.1

        This is my default position. However, reflecting on Flip’s comment, it occurred to me that collective bargaining is a market “solution” that generates a lot of conflict between workers and employers, when the real issue might be the policy and/or business model.

      • Chooky 5.2.2

        +100 Stephanie Rogers and good interesting post

        Labour must come up with more real Labour worker grassroots policies..(.the baby one, as good as it is for New Zealand families and addressing child poverty , is not enough to really swing it for Labour the opinion of my 80 something year old Mother)

        Cunliffe really has to look like a real Labour leader…not just a good leader of the Labour Party

  6. Will@Welly 6

    Having watched and waited under Labour for them to reverse National’s draconian legislation of the 90’s, I do not have high expectations.
    Unlike Flip, I know that it is impossible to legislate that companies distribute their income more evenly – that is what we have a tax system for.
    We have to put a stop to the bu**sh*t that is this absurdist notion that collective bargaining is wrong.
    For 30 years we have followed the drum of the neo-liberal philosophy, and the hole that we’ve dug for ourselves just gets deeper and deeper.
    Are our children better off? Why do so many suffer depression? Why are so many living in poverty? Why are so many kiwis – hard working ones at that too – forced to go off-shore looking for employment? Should a life-time be spent paying a land-lord the rent, just because you can’t get a job that recognises your skills? And whose fault is that? Not everyone can be an accountant, a lawyer or a university professor. Society would soon ground to a halt if our streets weren’t cleaned, our rubbish removed, or the dead buried. Some things, it’s very hard to put a price on, but to not value someone’s contribution to society, is to be entirely disingenuous.
    It’s easy to mock someone if they don’t come from the right part of society, or don’t quite speak as we do, but life would be very boring if we were all the same.
    I’d like to see the left coalition take action in their first 100 days in power, suspend the traditional holiday period for themselves and those immediately involved in getting this sort of legislation passed into law.
    What we need is genuine leaders.

    • Flip 6.1

      “Unlike Flip, I know that it is impossible to legislate that companies distribute their income more evenly – that is what we have a tax system for.”

      How do you know?

      It is not what the tax system is for. Tax is for the operation of government which is for the security of its people in the broadest sense.

      The redistribution of income reason for tax is an admission of failure in government to provide security for its people and to govern justly. That is not a reason to give up on good governance. Tax for the redistribution of income is one means of providing security and justice. (But I do not think it is the only or even the best way)

      Collective bargaining promotes competition and conflict between workers and employers. Competition is not a morally good thing despite arguments and assumptions in society especially from the right in certain circumstance that advantage them.

      What I’m proposing is that the rewards of business are distributed more fairly by means of legislation as to how the distribution between capital and labour was allowed as it would remove the competition between capital and labour for the rewards. It isn’t going to (though it could) happen from the goodness of the owners heart inspite of what they might claim.

      Note: I have not describe what that legislation looks like but it would not be the ECA as that is completely one-sided and unbalanced. PS. It is what you get when you lose the competition.

      • karol 6.1.1

        Actually, collective bargaining with a reasonably balanced lot of regulations/laws, results in a cooperation between employers and employees. Weakening employment law results in dissatisfied workers.

        • Flip 6.1.1.1

          Cannot say I’ve seen the collective bargaining thing work to result in cooperation between workers and employers. May be it does or has as that is just my observations.

          What is the percentage of people are part of collective bargaining arrangement? My gut feel is it is pretty low nowadays….

          • Macro 6.1.1.1.1

            Cannot say I’ve seen the collective bargaining thing work to result in cooperation between workers and employers. May be it does or has as that is just my observations.

            Well I have. Many times. My dad was president of a large union for 20+ years. The management knew him as well as the workers and both workers and management respected each other. Take for example one instance when a tyre builder was turning out tyres at a fantastic rate – there was a very good bonus to be had. The trouble was he was taking shortcuts and turning out a dangerous product. The management thought he was wonderful because of his productivity, but the workers requested his tyres be examined for faults. They were found to be defective and the management then want to fire him on the spot! The union stepped in and said do that and we stop work. Give him a chance to prove himself. They also said to him – take that sort of shortcut again and we won’t stand in the way of your dismissal. He was able to control himself for a while, but eventually greed got the better of him and he returned to leaving out a vital piece of in the building of the tyre. His tyres were quality tested again and found to be defective and that was that.
            That was of course well before the idiocy of the mid 1980’s…
            My dad who had fought for worker’s rights all his life, died a saddened man – he could see the damage the the so-called Labour Gov’t was doing to workers, and refused to vote for them after 1987. Our employment laws are now almost as punitive towards workers as they were in 1890’s. It’s time workers woke up to the fact that their only power is in collective action.

            • Chooky 6.1.1.1.1.1

              +100 Macro …agreed….collective bargaining is the only real strength workers have…..and good employers will respect it and negotiate with good faith…as for the bad employers well….they have to suffer the consequences…..stop work meetings/delays etc ..at least the workers have collective strength and can not be bullied, isolated and picked off one by one when trying to negotiate fair conditions and rates of pay……. collective bargaining does wonders for workers’ morale….and imo it is also good for the employer to have good respectful, cooperative relations with his/her employees….a happy appreciated fairly treated worker is more likely to work harder and go the extra mile

      • Will@Welly 6.1.2

        Collective bargaining – almost completely “gutted” by the Employment Contracts Act. What wasn’t, is now under attack by this regime.

        Let’s take your proposition – re legislation, at face value. Is it sharing the wealth around based on gross or net profit ?
        So we legislate. A company has a couple of lean years – it happens – are the workers prepared to live on less because the company is not doing so well?
        The company wants to expand/invest in plant – there is no “profit” – what happens – the workers take a pay cut for a year or so?
        My cousin set up a business – he took the risks – but when he set it up, he offered all his new employees a share in the business, with voting rights, and returns on their shareholding. He had no takers. He paid well above award wages, because he wanted motivated employees. He recently put the business up for sale. He offered it first to his employees. They wanted it at a discounted price. He had had it valued, he only wanted a fair price for it, not an exorbitant price. What would you do?
        You see Flip, there are some honest sods out there running businesses, just as there are some absolute bastards. The same with unions, there are very good unionists, just as there are some right plonkers.
        You seem to want to legislate away any rights away from those who are thrifty and save their money. Some of my Scottish forebears would take umbrage with you, they weren’t rich, but ask anyone of Scottish heritage, and they knew how to “salt” the odd penny away.

        • gem 6.1.2.1

          A very good comment, Will@Welly. Also, unionists range from left to right wing (on both economics and identity).

  7. Disraeli Gladstone 7

    “We’ve got a society where there’s a myth around individual agreements – they give you the chance to negotiate the best contract for you! Maybe that works for the senior managers, or for people with really specialised skills, but for your average clerical worker or shop hand? Here’s the agreement, take it or leave it – and oh yes, you’re on a 90-day trial.”

    My old man (in the UK) wasn’t a senior manager. He was very good at his job, but didn’t have any specialised skills. He always negotiated individual agreements, never joined the union, always came out with a better deal.

    I’m not saying that happens to everyone. I’m not saying that happens to even the majority. But actually, individual contracts do allow some freedom for a sect of workers (not just senior managers) to negotiate their own deals.

    I’d love to see fairer employment laws. I’d hate to see the return of compulsory unionism.

    • blue leopard (Get Lost GCSB Bill) 7.1

      The question that needs to be asked is:

      Is the number of people benefitting by individual contracts – such as your father was – greater than the number of people benefitted by collective bargaining, or not?

      Our societies arrangements should be such that it supplies the greatest benefit to the greatest number of us as possible.

      Anecdotal evidence of a few people is insufficient evidence to answer this question

      • Disraeli Gladstone 7.1.1

        Can’t we just have both?

        I don’t think you’re undermining the foundation of a system if you have a set-up that -strongly- encourages collective bargaining while allowing people to opt-out and negotiate their own contract.

        • blue leopard (Get Lost GCSB Bill) 7.1.1.1

          It sounds plausible to allow people to choose (collective or individual bargaining), yet I really don’t think I have enough knowledge on the matter to work out the ramifications of this – Hopefully someone else will respond intelligently to your suggestion.

          • Chooky 7.1.1.1.1

            i dont think the teachers’ unions are compulsory….but when a non union teacher wants help they join the union smartly….a wee bit of freeloading imo…..but I dont think once they are joined up union help is denied

    • Stephanie Rodgers 7.2

      I’m glad your father had that experience. But I’d infer from your comment that that he never faced redundancy without compensation, or unfair dismissal, or exploitation. He had the good fortune to always work for organisations which valued his labour. Some do, some don’t.

      For the great majority of workers, collective agreements result in higher wages and better protections. Historically, unions have been the drivers for a huge number of rights and protections which we now take for granted, like holiday pay, equal pay for women and the eight-hour working day (though for many workers that’s not a reality.)

    • Lanthanide 7.3

      Pretty easy to imagine that the company he was working for was playing a long-game in trying to weaken the union by enticing people out of the collective and onto individual contracts.

      Also in general I could imagine you may be able to get paid more on an individual contract if you gave up some of the other provisions and conditions that were present in the collective contract.

  8. karol 8

    The trouble with everyone negotiating their own deals – workers that is – is that it all depends on how good a negotiator a person is. And then you can end up with lack of fairness in what some people are paid. And particularly women, Maori, Pacific people, as well as many already low income people, getting the raw end of the deals.

    Unions also support workers with respect to working conditions, safety, breaks, etc.

    An individual with limited power, is likely to get a better from individual negotiations if there is also a union providing some power and oversight in the work area.

  9. RedBaronCV 9

    I think it’s an area that needs a multi pronged approach, not just wages but training schemes too.

    I’d have the employer paying the union fee for a year then maybe opt out.
    Another alternative I have had suggested was for all new hires to be unionised no if’s, no buts. Then everytime you sack someone the size of the union grows.

    Other things I’ve seen:
    the pension fund managers are not too happy either. Article in Stuff a while back talking about entreprenerial salaries for managerial jobs along with the great quote “the pigs are face down in the trough” and some academic work suggests that the inceased profits are going to a small manangerial class not workers, not owners where there are diverse shareholdings.

    Ease of getting IRD numbers, I’ve run across quite a few with no particular skill or connection to NZ who have come here from 2008 and on and wondered how they managed it in the face of our unemployment. One place according to local legend advertised it’s jobs at a really low rate, no local takers so brought in someone from the UK that they knew “can’t get people here” and three months later raised the wages to the industry standards.

    I’d have all industry groups run a training scheme, including farmers, and unless they are doing this and placing the trainees in jobs, and paying enough so that it works, then no more imported labour. When 2008 hit, one of the telco’s returned some people who had been here on work permits for 5 years, that’s long enough to train a young local they just hadn’t bothered.

    Lastly, I’d make all subscriptions to business roundtable and other employer bodies non tax deductible and payable personally – that’s how union fess work.

    As for these labour laws being efficient -spare me – most workplaces operate on a day to day mode no forward planning. it has built a whole generation of selfish managers who couldn’t plan ahead to save themselves.

  10. joe90 10

    We need people at the top of their game voicing their support for unions.

    “I’m also proud to say this is a union show, and I have never worked with a more professional group of people in my life. They get paid good money and they do a good job.”

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-dreier/jay-leno-shows-his-union-solidarity_b_4748971.html?

  11. Chooky 11

    +1000……Jay Leno ….what an example for all Americans!….what a quiet hero!….how different would the USA be today if the unions were strong!….what a tragedy for all Americans that they are not!

    …watching ‘The Wire’ at the moment…..the other side of USA today

  12. dave 12

    a lot of today’s managers would struggle with a well organised work force ,its going to be fun

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