There’s been a fair bit of coverage of John Key’s use of the CTU conference to divide and rule over wages and announce he’ll be making it even easier for employers to sack people without going through the proper process, but it was this statement that really caught my attention:
… the National Party’s election policy outlined some other possible areas for employment law reform. I know you are keen to hear how that work is progressing.
Again, let me be upfront. I understand the Minister of Labour has taken a first look at these issues. The Cabinet is yet to consider any recommendations however. The fact that these issues have not been progressed more rapidly reflects where they sit in the Government’s agenda – they’re not a driving priority.
Of course, you have to take anything Key says with a grain of salt, but I’d read that as saying they’re parking any major reform of the Employment Relations Act for the forseeable future – probably the rest of the term.
There’ll still be piecemeal attacks on work rights – a meal break here, a personal grievance right there, some clawbacks in the Holidays Act – but Key appears to be saying the ERA framework is something National and the business sector can live with.
I’ve got no doubt there may be a bit of realpolitik going on here. Key understandably will have little desire to confront the union movement head-on. They’re a different beast from that the movement National all but destroyed back in 1991, and they’re arguably the only organised fighting force on the left.
But I think it says a lot more about how weak the ERA is than anything else. The fact is the Employment Relations Act has always been a fundamentally neoliberal piece of legislation.
For all the hyperbole and rhetoric we heard from business and from National over the last nine years, by international standards the ERA is heavily slanted in favour of business and against workers. Sure, it was a significant improvement on the ECA, but that’s not hard when the ECA was basically Pinochet without all the shooting.
That’s something for Labour to think about for next time it’s in government. If the ERA is something even a neoliberal like John Key can live with, shouldn’t we be trying for something better?