There is an award for forestry workers in Australia. It has a whole range of terms and conditions including hours of work and time off, penal rates for overtime including weekend work, travel allowances and training provisions. The accident rate is half the rate of NZ. The economy is also stronger in Australia, unemployment is lower, wages are better and they have a better cricket team. It all seems rather dignified to me.
Getting any sort of rights for Forestry workers in New Zealand using the current industrial relations framework is a huge undertaking. Protected only by statutory minimums that determine minimum wage, holidays etc for all workers in NZ, forestry workers are, in my view, being employed on terms which are leading to the massive toll of death and injuries. The fragmented model of the industry (9 major forest owners and over 300 harvesting contractors who employ crew) means contractors compete over the price of labour, and with margins being squeezed by theforest owners, contractors in turn pressure forestry workers to work in conditions which are a national disgrace.
Following Pike River the Government set up the Health and Safety Taskforce. They appointed Rob Jaeger as chair. Rob is the Chair of the Board of Shell Oil in NZ. Also on the group was Paul McKay from Business NZ and Bill Rosenberg from the CTU and three others. The report is very good and all participants endorsed it. Not only does it make some very strong recommendations for the future which if implemented will improve our appalling health and safety record but it analyses what is going on currently that contributes to our terrible record in a very effective way. The report strongly records that the deregulation of the Labour market in the 1980’s and 1990’s has contributed to the problem, most particularly the absence of worker voice in health and safety in the workplace. Sadly recommendations to reregulate the labour market were probably out of scope!
The Government is deregulating the labour market further. Not only is it attacking current collective bargaining mechanisms but it is even making the right to take a tea break marginal. The changes to the Employment Relations Act were tabled two weeks ago by the Government. If they had been in place last year they would have allowed the Port of Auckland to turn its stevedoring workforce into day labourers hired by external contractors, as it had planned. The proposed changes to the Act are, as a package, the things Business NZ wet dreams are made of, and when you think of their impact on those working people in industries like forestry where workers and families actually need safer terms and conditions, they are a major step backwards.
The CTU is promoting exactly the opposite to these changes. We want law that supports the creation of industry standard documents which would see forestry workers have industry wide minimum terms and conditions, protecting them from death by over work and creating a level playing field that stops forest owners driving conditions down. We are promoting a method of extension of bargaining which the IMF recently recognised as really the only effective system of providing access to real collective bargaining for working people. I will write a more detailed description of the system soon.
It is interesting at the moment that some large NZ employers (all unionised I add), are breaking away from the position advocated by Business NZ – Progressives Supermarkets and Restaurant Brands rejecting youth rates, Warehouse moving towards the Living Wage along with others. We know in the Port dispute there were employers that didn’t support the way the Port was being run and saw what was happening to the workers there as another symptom of that poor management. They spoke up and created quite a stir. I have been arguing for some time that we need a modern voice for business in NZ and maybe we are seeing the beginnings of it. Forest Companies have the chance to break loose from the group and work with us as well to act now to improve the working conditions of these workers and we have certainly put that offer out there. The first to do it will get the benefits of that and the last the rancour. Those that have accidents and deaths in the meantime will be subject to massive scrutiny for doing nothing.
We are building our campaign against these work rights attacks and they are connected to the work we are doing on health and safety and the living wage. New Zealand has slipped back massively in the area of workers rights, leaving thousands of workers outside the framework of collective bargaining current available in the Act and everyone knows the consequences of that are low wages and poor conditions for thousands of those in our communities and families. We have now also been warned that the chances of coming home safety from work is also reduced by this failure.
We are offering the chance to people to directly get the information on events and activities of our campaign by signing up through our website on http://union.org.nz/whycutourpay