The National Government’s latest proposals to strip away workers’ protections against unfair dismissal, including extending the 90 day fire at will law, must surely put to bed any idea that this is a moderate, centrist government.
Over the last few months the Government has started to step up its attacks on workers’ rights, eschewing any sweeping overhauls of the Employment Relations Act and going instead for a strategy of death by a thousand cuts.
In an area that marks the core of the Left-Right divide this growing boldness is a telling sign of who National is governing for and raises questions about how long the myth of the centrist John Key can continue.
As the Greens point out, the latest proposals go beyond anything in National’s pre-election industrial relations policy, and I’d add that they go well beyond even the Employment Contracts Act 1991.
National’s proposals include:
This really is pretty extreme stuff, and there’s no need to go into a detailed rebuttal of each point here. The most telling thing is the weakness of the arguments from National and the business lobby. There appears to be no real reason for this other than the fact that many employers simply don’t understand employment law and don’t like it when that law holds them to account for their mistakes and for their failures of management.
National’s line today on Morning Report was that the law is too focused on process rather than substance, and that employers should not have follow fair process when sacking someone. There’s no evidence for this, all they have is a few anecdotes from the employer lobby, while the minister’s own discussion document shows most people are happy with the current system. Indeed, you’ve got to wonder what use a right to fair process would be if there were no sanction on employers who breached it.
Meanwhile Business NZ’s Phil O’Reilly is claiming that taking away the right to appeal against unfair dismissal and denying natural justice will boost economic growth and reduce unemployment. He doesn’t have a shred of evidence either, and I doubt he believes this nonsense himself.
When you cut through the spin and the bullshit, there’s nothing here but pure self-interest from the employer lobby and their representatives in the National Party.
So, what’s at stake here for working New Zealanders if these proposals go ahead? Quite a bit, actually. As Andrew Little put it yesterday, ‘the ability to take away someone’s economic livelihood is a huge amount of power, and it’s a basic democratic right that all workers have access to natural justice.’
That cuts to the core of what this debate is really about. Employers have a huge amount of power over our lives. When you take away someone’s job you’re taking away their economic livelihood. You’re taking away the means to keep a roof over their heads, to put food on their dinner table and to support their family. An employer holds in their hands the threat of their employee’s financial ruin.
There’s a huge social element here too. A person’s job is a large part of their social life and of their identity. Often a job is the very reason a person moves to a place and becomes part of a community. Taking that away from someone in an arbitrary and unfair fashion is frequently humiliating and emotionally devastating.
In civilised societies we ensure that power as great as this is checked against abuse. In the political arena we have civil rights to protect us against potential abuses of power by the state. We don’t leave it up to citizens to â€˜fend for themselves’ against the state or tell them to â€˜leave this country and find another one if you don’t like it’. We limit the state’s power to ensure against abuse.
The same principle should apply for corporate power, particularly in the employment relationship. That’s why work rights are important to a democratic society – they’re not just some economic imposition on employers, they’re the civil rights of the workplace.
In rolling back these rights, National and the business lobby are trying to restore the economic relations of the 19th century. Some have mistakenly tried to compare the principle of at-will employment to medieval serfdom. I don’t think that’s quite right. For all the crimes of serfdom, at least there was a sense of noblesse oblige on the part of the landed aristocracy.
The principle of fire at will employment removes even that it is the ultimate commodification and dehumanisation of labour. You are not a human being with a right to dignity and respect and fairness in the workplace. You are a unit of labour, no different from a cargo of steel or a truck full of timber. If your employer doesn’t need you for whatever reason then you’re down the road you, your family, your social standing, the lot of it. It is a charter for employment without dignity.
When John Howard tried this in Australia with WorkChoices a few years back it was widely recognised as a step too far to the right and he was comprehensively turfed out at the next election. Here in New Zealand, John Key gets puff pieces about his visit to a bunch of gushing private school girls in Wellington.
The challenge for the New Zealand labour movement is to take these proposals and all the rest of National’s attacks on our work rights and form it into a coherent narrative about a Government that stands for the rich few at the top and against the interests of the many. And the media commentariat needs to get over the idea that just because John Key goes to the Big Gay Out one day then cuts taxes for the rich the next that makes him a centrist.