National’s vision: employment without dignity

Written By: - Date published: 3:23 pm, March 3rd, 2010 - 52 comments
Categories: national, workers' rights - Tags:

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:

  • Expanding the 90 day fire at will period, possibly up to six months.
  • Expanding the 90 day fire at will law to cover even more workers, with a suggestion of taking away rights to fairness and due process from all workers in businesses where there are fewer than 50 employees.
  • Giving employers many more grounds to dismiss workers.
  • Removing natural justice requirements in the dismissal process, including the right to be told what the charges are against you, the right to explain yourself, the right to have that explanation considered, and the right to a fair process.
  • Further limiting the time limit in which an employee can take a personal grievance.
  • Removing reinstatement as a primary remedy.
  • Removing all rights to fairness and due process in dismissal for people over a certain income threshold.

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 ‘fend for themselves’ against the state or tell them to ‘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.

52 comments on “National’s vision: employment without dignity”

  1. Armchair Critic 1

    “You are a unit of labour, no different from a cargo of steel or a truck full of timber.”
    When will National realise that people are more than “resources”? Without even addressing the ethical side of the argument, the plan is a fail because cargoes of steel and truck loads of timber do not participate in the economy by spending whatever income they receive over their lifetime. Important difference, that.

  2. Onomatopoeia 2

    But you guys told me the world was going to end with the 90 days “fire at will” bill. People would be starving in the streets. Women would be raped with impunity by their employers. That didn’t happen. So why would I believe you now?

    • Where? Sources please.

      • lprent 2.1.1

        I bet you never get an answer… Idiots like this ‘Onomatopoeia’ are good at making crap up through ‘common-sense’ and totally useless at proving anything that they say is ‘true’.

        In fact it is almost the distinguishing feature of a wingnut… In this case he is starting to look to me like he is a troll…

        • Onomatopoeia 2.1.1.1

          I’ll take that bet. lprent. What are you putting up?

          • mickysavage 2.1.1.1.1

            How about you come up with the sources.

          • lprent 2.1.1.1.2

            It was a bet between the savage and myself – not you.

            I notice that you still haven’t put anything up to prove your assertion…. Did I ever mention what I do to people that just come here to bullshit without anything more between their ears than empty space?

            • Onomatopoeia 2.1.1.1.2.1

              On 9 December 2008 at 2:06 on the thread entitled “Ramming it through” Irishbill predicted widespread sexual harrassment of employees by employers. For some reason, it will not let me copy the link but you can look it up yourself.

              Now I have to admit to being a bit confused about who wins what. r0b wins me not being banned? I’m uncertain of the degree to which he is likely to value that.

              My catchpa is “staying”. It’s in the stars, lprent.

              [lprent: Not exactly. The stars don’t have control of this site. I do. You have to conform to the rough policies of this site. One of the things that I hand out bans for is making assertions without evidence when challenged. To not do so is viewed as evidence of trolling. ]

              • You mean here?

                If you read the comments properly a troll accused Irish of saying something like this. He said nothing of the sort apart from this:

                “I have a friend that has recently dealt with a case in which a small employer decided to reduce a new worker’s hour to a point where they were effectively zero because she rebuffed his advances during a staff night on the piss. That cost that employer a considerable sum. Not for the sexual harassment but for the breach of process.

                Besides you said “you guys” implying more than one. Yet you come up with only one source and it does not say what you claimed it would say.

                Onomataopoeis you are looking more and more like a troll.

                Slept under any bridges lately?

              • omomatopoeia

                One of the things that I hand out bans for…

                That’s the problem around here, and with the left in general. Time was, there was fun to be had here. Ribbing was tolerated accross the divide. Now, Irishbill wades in at a moment’s notice proclaiming (like it is something to be proud of) that not all left wingers are liberal and lprent will accuse anyone who disagrees with him of being a troll. Meanwhile the infantile smugenss of a BLip is encouraged as if he were clever and the mindless facism of a Millsy gets tacit approval. This place used to be reasonably unique in the NZ cyberspace discourse. Now it is a sad little echo chamber.

                [lprent: That is your opinion. Generally it is a hell of lot easier to read without the daft comments derived from reading the debris extracted from your navel. The number of comments keeps increasing and is generally of a higher quality that is actually interesting. If you can’t evolve, then that is mainly your problem. In the end I really don’t care that much about what your opinion is – it is seldom backed with any evidence. ]

              • yeahright

                Watch it buddy or you will be banned

              • felix

                Waaah! It’s no fun here! They make me back up my bullshit and I just caaaaan’t!

                Poor stupid fuck. Go cry somewhere else.

              • Onomatopoeia

                Hey, lprent, I actually like you. You are obviously very well meaning and talented in surprisingly wide-ranging number of fields. But have you noticed that none of your posts seem to attract much traffic. That’s because, despite being well-meaning, intelligent and hard-working, you are not actually that interesting. You are a basically nice human being who has gone a bit mad on a little bit of power in an odd little world. And the way in which you have exercised that power has made this site worse. You will not see that because, being a basically nice person, you value loyalty. So you will slap the backs of the bullies like Irishbill and the one dimensional children who are trying to be the Whaleoil of the left (BLiP, Millsy et al) and pretend to yourself that you are raising the tone of discourse. There are some who remember the early days of this site. When it was possible to make a joke at the expense of a person from any side of the spectrum. If the person was a dullard and the joke was funny, we all laughed and moved on. Not any more. I know you feel you must take yourselves so seriously because the very future of civilization rests with you. But maybe you are wrong.

                And as for putting yourself above the stars, that’s so not Grey Lynn of you.

                Oh, and Felix, I did back up my “bullshit”. Are you seriously saying that the left has not been arguing that lots of really, really bad things would happen once the “fire at will law” (as you insist on calling it) came in? Because they just did. And if you do not think bad things were going to happen, why did you not support it? Oh, I know why: because you thought lots of bad things were going to happen. Only they didn’t.

                [lprent: Answered in OpenMike. It is cluttering this post. ]

              • BLiP

                Moi – and BlubberBoy?

                Classic.

              • felix

                “Oh, and Felix, I did back up my “bullshit’.”

                No you didn’t. You claimed this:
                “But you guys told me the world was going to end with the 90 days “fire at will’ bill. People would be starving in the streets. Women would be raped with impunity by their employers.”

                And mickey called you on it. And then you had a little cry about how it’s no fun around here because you can’t make shit up and have it stand unchallenged.

                “Are you seriously saying that the left has not been arguing that lots of really, really bad things would happen once the “fire at will law’ (as you insist on calling it) came in?”

                Ah, so “you guys” means “the left” which means “something I thought I saw on the standard”. How about you figure out who the fuck you’re talking to and address a comment to them directly. I don’t speak for “the left” or anyone else.

                For the record though, look around you, moron. The govt is now trying to remove everyone else’s workplace rights too, as predicted. That’s a “really, really bad thing” in my book.

                Now back to your claim that “you guys told me … People would be starving in the streets. Women would be raped with impunity by their employers.”

                Come up with anything yet?

                Didn’t think so.

              • felix

                BLiP, I suspect he means to say that you’re the diametric opposite of Cam Slug. He just doesn’t have the facility to express the idea very well.

              • BLiP

                Ahh – that makes more sense. As unarmed as he is, I thought he might have been trying to be witty. Of course, I should have realised when his said his first comment concerning rape was a joke. Funny guy.

    • Bright Red 2.2

      there have been abuses of the 90 Day Bill. Some of them have been mentioned on this site. But with no legal recourse and without DoL monitoring the impact of the law, it’s hardly surprising that many abuses don’t come to public light.

    • Daveo 2.3

      Another aspect people don’t realise is that most employers don’t understand the law. They actually think the fire at will provisions come in automatically, when the employer has to actually put it in themselves. As a result most people aren’t actually on them.

      As you see the rot extend to large businesses more people will go on them. The difference is large organisations with HR departments actually know what they’re doing.

      There have been a few cases – that girl at Overland who was forced to buy shoes worth more than her pay or she’d get the sack under the fire at will law, and there was one Unite had a protest about recently. I understand the CTU has fielded quite a few cases, but understandably people are unwilling to speak out in case it hinders their chances of getting another job.

      Doesn’t help either that the Department of Labour hasn’t been keeping any stats.

      The other thing worth noting is that this package is far wider in scope than the original fire at will bill. It really is quite extreme.

    • Roger 2.4

      John Key said it would reduce unemployment and give people a better chance at finding employment. That didn’t happen. So why should I believe him now?

      • Sam 2.4.1

        Yeah good point. I for one would love to see some stats on how well the fire at will act has helped keep unemployment down.

    • kaplan 2.5

      So Onomatopoeia. You support the right for employers to be able to breed workers in captivity, feed them nothing but bread and water and instead of wages simply provide the most minimal level of heat and shelter required? That’s truly awfull.

      What’s that you say? You didn’t say that?

      Oh.. hard luck. it’s on teh interwebs now.

  3. If they passed this the next class of workers they would go for are the union delegates. The right and ability of workers to organise collectively would obviously be on the line.

    Yet they have promised to catch our wages up with those in Australia. It is obvious they do not have a freakin idea how to do this. They do not even understand that undermining workers protection can only drive wages down, not up.

    • Bright Red 3.1

      “they have promised to catch our wages up with those in Australia. It is obvious they do not have a freakin idea how to do this.”

      It’s the will that’s lacking

      “They do not even understand that undermining workers protection can only drive wages down, not up.”

      Oh, I think they understand perfectly.

    • Ari 3.2

      You assume their goal was actually to drive everyone’s wages up in the first place, and not simply to engage in class warfare. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the government’s actual goals have little or no relation to their electioneering.

    • Draco T Bastard 3.3

      Yet they have promised to catch our wages up with those in Australia.

      That’s what they promised and yet it’s obvious that it’s not something they ever wanted or that they would do anything about.

  4. vto 4

    I’m confused.. Surely bosses would not want to have a discontented workforce because that only makes things more difficult for the bosses.

    While generally more sympathetic to the ‘right’ view of things I do not understand this approach.

    Maybe they are simply simpletons now in Wgtn. Maybe it is not the bosses but the absentee owners who dont really care for the community who are driving this type of approach. Maybe something else.

    Sheesh, I don’t know much but I do know that you get more in the world with honey than you do with vinegar…

    • Roger 4.1

      In my workplace, I know that some bosses will be salivating over this because for every person in a job there, there are 50 applications sitting in an office tray from people willing to do anything for work.

      • vto 4.1.1

        But that is exactly what I mean Roger. No employer wants to be employing people all the time – they just want happy staff who stay and do a good job. One employee who stays is better than ten employees revolving through the same door each year.

        • Daveo 4.1.1.1

          Abuse doesn’t have to be limited to a policy of revolving sackings and rehirings every 89 days. There are any number of reasons why an employer might sack someone unfairly – happens all the time already, only at the moment there’s protections against that sort of thing.

        • Roger 4.1.1.2

          Yes, but here is what I’m highlighting. I know of managers that are quite adept at attacking some workers while others remain oblivious or happy. They then choose to drive them out the door so the problem of the unhappy worker goes away and they can get someone else they know or like.

  5. no, Mr Key, no 5

    ! Breaking News !
    The Government today announced the introduction of the 3,784 day ‘right to fire’ trial period for all employees. When questioned as to why they thought such a lengthy trial period was required, or even fair, the spokesperson replied “f#*k off and do what you are told’

  6. Who is the “person” GuestPost?

    Why should we listen to them?

    What is their agenda?

    Do they work for a union?

    Are they a Labour party member?

    [lprent: Who cares – comment on their writing – not whatever insane theory you’d like to believe. Of course if you want to get a real paranoid theory going, then I suggest that you avoid reading the site policy which tells you the types of things that moderators over-react to. ]

    • Quite possibly they are either a Labour Party member or a Union employee or (gasp) maybe both.

      Address the issues raised rather than attempting to denigrate them.

    • yeahright 6.2

      Could have sworn its wa mickeysavage making comment on my comment earlier today?

      What the blooming heck is going on here????

  7. no, Mr Key, no 7

    i am neither and that is irrelevant

    it was satire people, an abstract of the situation exagerrated to create effect of reason

  8. no, Mr Key, no 8

    my view is simple, remove the legislation entirely and go back to treating people with a little dignity
    but no government is capable of doing that as their agenda has other motives

  9. The “issues” are postulations and scaremongering for the most part.

    An example of this scaremongering is the text

    “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

    Asking questions is not denigration (but you know that) rather it is putting the postulations and scaremongering into context as to their motivation.

    Thanks for letting me respond (and I hope my markup skills are not too rusty).

  10. @no, Mr Key, no – are you the author? I didn’t read the post as satire & I normally recognise satire when I see it.

    [lprent: I’d suggest that speculating on the identity of the author of any post could lead you to a ban. Read the policy. ]

    • no, Mr Key, no 10.1

      no i am not the author ‘guestpost’ , i was saying my post, ‘no Mr Key, no’,was satire of the article
      i think a wire got crossed somewhere. have a nice day

      [lprent: 😈 There are always fools who will believe anything. It was quite amusing watching two of them get twisted]

  11. no, Mr Key, no 11

    i thought the 3,784 days was obvious enough that everyone could see it was humour, or is the
    government really so bad you actually think it was a real announcement.

    That is a very very frightening concept and my sides are hurting from laughter,

    • I thought it was very funny although for a split second I wondered if it was a real announcement …

      • yeahright 11.1.1

        No it wasn’t satirical or funny or life like and the chronological order was out of whack but the inline commenting functionality fooled the fools so to speak

  12. Bill 12

    Hate to say this, but…maybe if the unions hadn’t gone along with the ‘partnership’ model ( even only in word if not completely in deed) and maybe if the unions hadn’t fought shy of taking back the right to strike and maybe if the unions had engaged their members more in improving working conditions (holiday pay etc) rather than relying on lobbying of a broadly sympathetic government that was also trying to mollify business, then maybe I’d think the present government would have a fight on its hands.

    But too many NZ unions held their breath and pussyfooted waiting for better deals to be passed into law following negotiations with the Labour party…thereby effectively chopping off their own balls…the balls being the ‘movement’ suffix that should naturally follow from the word ‘union’.

    Of all the comments here, of those that are not hand wringing, not one seems to step beyond the ‘write to the editor’ type response. And I think there is much more to that than the make up of ‘the standard’ readership. Sadly.

  13. Red Rosa 13

    All this reminds me of the quote from Chief Red Cloud of the Oglala Teton Sioux, in ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’.

    ‘The white man made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.’

    We NZ’ers could almost say – ‘John Key made us many promises, but he only kept one. He promised to reduce wages, and he did.’

    Maybe someone from the Maori Party will read this.

  14. Ah, “No, Mr Key No” I was wondering what the heck you were talking about.

    Looks like there are three fools in this particular tangle eh Lynn.

    • Dave O 14.1

      Just one and that’s Iprent looking like the dick he is going in balls deep and failing on the coverup

      Classic comedy gold

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