The Governments attack on workers pay seems even more nasty given the stats released this week that show wages stagnating as prices increase especially those prices that workers spend their money on – housing, power, food etc. But the changes to the ERA going through the house will also increase insecurity.
I spent Wednesday and Thursday in a “think group” at the Whitlam Institute in Sydney with a group of very interesting people from NZ and OZ who are thinking about the issue of precarious work and various options for legal solutions to address it.
Actually one of the conclusions was that most workers these days are precarious. Traditionally we have used the definition to discuss casual, fixed term, labour hire, dependent contracting type work, but in reality because of the continual culture of restructuring in both countries, coupled with reductions of protections against dismissals and the impact on life choices of low wages, the term applies to a group much wider than those employed on non permanent contracts. Insecure work seems more appropriate.
The changes to employment security shift the risks of employment from the business to workers. Mainzeal was a very good example of this. The sight of the immediate resurrection of fences and posting of security guards to protect the incomplete building sites Mainzeal abandoned, for the banks, while the workers peered through the fences for their tools was typical. Many have not been paid for the labour they gave to Mainzeal and to the ultimate building owners that benefited from their work. They never will – what a risk they took accepting that work! These workers were contractors or employees of contractors.
There is a big stink at the moment with zero hours contracts in the UK. These are contracts that bind workers to an employer but without any guarantee of hours of work. They often contain restraints on the worker doing other work. We have a variety of these types of agreements in NZ.
Labour Hire I guess is the classic zero hour contract. You sign up with the company and are restricted from picking up work with the companies they deal with – which can exclude many of the natural employers a worker may preference. The wages paid are often below what the worker would receive if directly employed and the work offers no guaranteed hours.
However there are also many direct employees in employment agreements with no guaranteed hours – some do guarantee you the work when it is doable (e.g forestry – you get the work when it is on, but you are not paid for example if work is called off for bad weather). Others have casual hours with no guarantees. They may say something like “up to a maximum 30 hours per week” for example but have no guarantee. The First Union is reporting that some supermarkets, workers are being made more and more part-time as things slow down under these type agreements. Shifts are not regular in many of these jobs so even if you are only getting a few shifts a week, you can’t take on other work because you need to be available. Fast food work is a big offender.
I recently blogged on the Elderslea rest home in the Hutt that determined to remove all the permanent shifts and make workers casual – an example of how wide the precarious definition extends.
I don’t know the numbers but hundreds of teachers are now employed on fixed term agreements particularly new teachers – lots of it is illegal I expect (in breach of fixed term restrictions in the Employment Relations Act), and it is very damaging to new teachers effectively finishing off their training leading to registration – they are the first to go or have their hours reduced if the school role drops. This also represents a productivity loss to NZ. We train these teachers on the one hand with state money then exploit them on the other hand (with state money) putting the value of the training at risk. It is bad economics. A waste. A loss. Mr Joyce?
At the seminar I attended we discussed the massive impact all this insecure work has. We also agreed much of it is completely unnecessary and not only shifts the risk to the worker but is a cost to the community. These workers move in and out of work and on and off benefits creating huge administrative and other costs. Much of their work is subsidised by grants from the State to keep them afloat. They miss out on any training or development leaving NZ with an under-qualified workforce and poor productivity, and these are just the economic costs. There lives are dominated by work. Waiting for it, looking for it, meeting WINZ demands when they don’t have it. They don’t have paid holidays meaning they don’t have holidays at all, costing them family time. They often don’t have sick leave. They are vulnerable if asserting any rights or raising any concerns – they are having accidents and accepting low wages. They can’t make commitments – family time, own time, mortgages etc. The list goes on.
We then discussed the solutions – there are solutions and they are legitimate in regards the entitlement people should have to employment security when it is simply being denied to shift risk. Insecure work is a hazard (moral, economic and social). Hazards should be either eliminated where possible or if not isolated and minimised. This is the sort of approach needed here. Young people in particular are losing the concept that time is theirs. Some of it they use for work, some for other things.
Insecure work leaves the idea that they are not wanted, not valued, not really needed. It is corrosive. The idea that the change to the model of business in the service sector to a 24/7 model has resulted in less secure rather than more secure work is actually counter-intuitive but widely accepted. The changes to the ERA make work more insecure, create more of this, allowing more domination and removing further the concept of life beyond work.
The NZCTU will launch a campaign on this issue specifically at its conference in October. Our campaign against the employment law change is also underway – check out the rally dates on our website. Come and see the CTU petition presentation Thursday 22 August.