New Zealand Labour Letter (October 2012)

9 Oct

This is an abridged version of an online newsletter published as a service to the labour movement by AIL of New Zealand Ltd. Letter at www.ailnews.com

National Labour News

NZ labour unions fear more workers will be laid off after more than 500 jobs were cut in the latest round of layoffs. Recent job cuts announced at state coal firm Solid Energy will reduce its staff by 25 per cent to 1360 from 1899 at the beginning of 2012. Government-owned KiwiRail, meanwhile, began consultation after confirming that 158 jobs will be eliminated from its infrastructure and engineering division around the country. The Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) led a march on parliament last month to protest the closing of Solid Energy’s Spring Creek and Huntly East operations and to plead for a $36 million one-off payout to keep the mines open. The EPMU also told the news media that paper maker Norske Skog is expected to announce soon120 job cuts. In other recently publicised cuts, Rio Tinto’s Tiwai Point smelter will eliminate 100 jobs by November, and North Island Mussel Processors 220 fulltime and seasonal staff.

More than 400 primary school teachers from across the country attended New Zealand Educational Institute’s (NZEI) annual conference in Rotorua October 1-4, where they expressed their displeasure over the government’s proposed education standards. Minister of Education Hekia Parata defended the policy changes on national standards, charter schools and league tables but faced heated questions from teachers. NZEI president Ian Leckie said it was unlikely that teachers will favourably accept the new policies. “We’ve got some very different views about what is going to make the biggest difference in New Zealand education,” he said. International experts who spoke at the conference criticised the imposition of national standards, saying they do not work. Pasi Sahlberg from Finland’s Ministry of Education said none of the countries with top performing educational systems have policies in place which the government is proposing. He said Finland got to the top of the rankings doing the opposite of what is now happening in New Zealand.

Maori union members and iwi leaders endorsed a call to halt national asset sales and to negotiate water rights. Council of Trade Union Maori Vice President Syd Keepa reported that more than 200 iwi leaders and CTU Maori members attended a one-day assembly (hui) at Baypark on Tuesday, September 18, where they “resolved to both strengthen the relationship between unions and iwi to progress the rights of workers.” Syd said Maori workers and their unions called for the Government to stop assets sales and for iwi to work together to define and negotiate Maori proprietary rights and interests over water. “They strongly urged iwi not to enter into negotiations with the crown until proprietary rights and interests were addressed. This is consistent with the ‘common interest’ recognition dominating the mood of the occasion”, he said. He called the hui “historic” and it also recognised the role iwi leaders in the settlement of the recent dispute at AFFCO.

NZ labour unions welcomed the release of the Health and Safety Taskforce’s Issues Paper last month. The Government in April authorised creation of the taskforce to undertake a review of the nation’s workplace safety and health conditions. The Issues Paper identified areas of policy that require change in order to improve the country’s workplaces. “It’s a disgrace that on average 100 people per year are killed at work. If there is something all New Zealanders would agree on it is that every worker who leaves home at the start of their working day should return home safe and healthy. This is a fundamental starting point”, said Council of Trade Union President Helen Kelly. The CTU urged New Zealand families to contact the Taskforce with their ideas and experiences. “We have five times the rate of workplace injury in NZ than that of the UK. Over 6,000 New Zealanders make notifications about serious harm in their workplace each year. The issues paper asks why this might be and what is needed to stop this including considering the role of government, employers, unions and workers as well as the adequacy of the legislation,” she said.

CTU President helen Kelly

National, Economic & Political Events

Technicians and trade workers in the 20-29 age bracket are leaving the country for Australia in record numbers, creating a New Zealand “trade drain,” charged NZ Labour’s deputy leader and education spokesperson Grant Robertson. “The government’s lack of investment in apprenticeships or other skills training programmes is exposing the gap being left in the economy. Along with the absence of a coherent economic plan, it’s a fatal combination”, he said. In the 12 months prior to June, a record 53,763 people left New Zealand for Australia for better paying jobs. Professionals made up 11 per cent and the number of technicians and trade workers nine per cent. But technicians and trade workers 20-29 years old accounted for the greatest numbers, 14.4 per cent of the total. “This is a disaster”, said Robertson. “New Zealand is on the way to a skills crisis.”

New Zealand workers really just want to have fun on the job, at least according to a survey conducted by HR consultancy Clarian Human Resources and Massey University. The survey found that “having fun at work” is the most important thing for job satisfaction among New Zealanders. Fifty per cent of the workers in a survey of 612 people listed “fun” as their top priority with pay seen as the second-highest priority. Employers thought pay was the second-lowest factor, while 71 per cent of employers said their product and brand reputation was the most important factor in attracting quality employees. “We’re seeing uncertainty in the economy, business strategies and operational tactics, and in employees’ states of mind relating to their choices for the future”, said Clare Parkes, managing director of Clarian. “While organisations have heavily invested in ‘right-sizing’ their headcount to accommodate the changing market forces, this leaves employees lacking clarity on what their future options are since the concept of career is no longer available to them in the traditional linear manner.”

International Labour

The Public Service Alliance of Canada, (PSAC) held a National Day of Action Sept.16 with rallies and events across the nation to raise public awareness of the cuts to public services proposed by the Conservative government. “Canadians from all walks of life are feeling the impact of federal cuts: we’ll be sharing their stories and protesting these cuts,” the union said in a statement. The Conservatives recently announced that about 19,200 federal jobs will be cut in the public service sector over three years as part of their austerity measures. The PSAC said that thousands of jobs could be lost and services drastically reduced. In St. John’s, Newfoundland, for example, a rally and march started at the Murray Premises. In Toronto, union activists held “The People’s Court,” which placed the austerity agenda and political leaders “on trial” for sweeping budget cuts.

America’s unions flexed their political muscle during the campaign season augmenting labor’s vaunted ground campaign with social media through new technology and expanding their volunteer base with groups once considered outside society’s mainstream. The AFL-CIO introduced new on-line technology called “Repurpose” which allows volunteers to earn points for their activism which can be “redeemed” to trigger spending by the labor’s Super PAC, called “Workers Voice.” Meanwhile, Pride@Work, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender affiliate of the AFL-CIO, themed their annual conference in September “Boots on the Ground” to emphasize their commitment to engage in the 2012 elections. The U.S. election is scheduled for November 6, although early voting in several states has already begun.

The Tunisian Industry, Trade and Handicrafts Union (UTICA) “firmly” condemned acts of violence perpetrated against the U.S. diplomatic mission to Tunisia last month after hundreds of protestors attacked the U.S. Embassy in Tunis and stormed the grounds September 14. Violent clashes between the security forces and the mob resulted in four deaths and 50 persons wounded. “These acts of violence perpetrated against public and private properties and foreign residents in Tunisia are unacceptable and will harm Tunisia’s image,” said UTICA in a statement. “The Union advocates the freedom of expression and respects peaceful protest staged under the law, but condemns all form of violence as a means of protest,” UTICA asserted. The union also denounced the attack on Islam and Prophet Muhammad following the release on-line of trailers of the anti-Islam film “The Innocence of Muslims.”

Tens of thousands of workers, young people, unemployed and retirees took part in demonstrations last month in major cities of Portugal and Spain in response to severe austerity policies. Dock workers also staged strikes in Portugal, where the biggest protests took place. They oppose changes in work rules that threaten jobs. The Portuguese economy was projected to shrink by 3 per cent this year and the official jobless rate is nearly 16 per cent. In Madrid, protesters marched on the parliament building chanting “Fire them, fire them,” in reference to Spain’s right-wing government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. But police sealed off access to the building. Rajoy’s government recently presented a 2013 austerity budget that will cut overall spending by €40 billion, freeze public employees’ salaries and reduce unemployment benefits.

Huge protest against austerity in Portugal

In another embarrassment for Apple, Foxconn, maker of iPhones and iPads, shut down production at a factory in China’s northern city of Taiyuan September 24 after a riot by some 2,000 employees at a dormitory injured 40 people. The facility employes 79,000 people. International labour groups pointed to the riot as yet another symptom of employee mistreatment at Foxconn. News reports said the riot first started as a “personal dispute” between a few security guards and workers that quickly escalated. Cars and store front windows were smashed during the melee. Interviewed workers alleged Foxconn’s security guards are often domineering and aggressive toward assembly-line workers. The Taiwanese-owned company is one of Chinas largest employers, with some 1.2 million workers in factories in Taiyuan, the southern city of Shenzhen, in Chengdu in the west and in Zhengzhou in central China. Unrest has occurred at other plants where workers complain of low pay and poor conditions.

Regional and Local Union News

NZ Bus, the Tramways Union and First Union reached a settlement for a new collective agreement at a “last ditch meeting” September 21, which averted industrial action that could have stranded 130,000 Auckland commuters and 10,000 school children. The agreement was announced in a joint statement by all parties. Drivers for NZ Bus, which operates lines including Metrolink, Go West, Waka Pacific, Northstar and the inner-city Link routes, including school bus services, were planning to strike every Monday for eight weeks over a pay dispute and recent contract and rostering changes. The first job action was planned for Monday, Sept. 24. “We welcome this development and are pleased that the buses will be on the road to carry the travelling public this Monday” said Gary Froggatt from Tramways Union. “Today’s meeting was positive, and we can see a way forward with some unity between the bus unions and the CTU, and NZ Bus,” said Karl Andersen from First Union.

Temporary employees who may not be up to speed with operational procedures create unsafe and stressful conditions for wharf workers at the Port of Tauranga, the NZ Maritime Union charged recently. “You’ve got to train them up and it’s really difficult,” Mount Maunganui Tauranga branch secretary Selwyn Russell said. “The sheer workload already contributes to high dangers … and then you’ve got casuals running around on the floors who do not know the standard operating practices.” Russell cited the death of a contract worker in August last year as an example of the dangers of working at the Port. He explained that the permanent staff already faced heavy workload pressures. Working with temporary employees with limited knowledge of the standard operating practices raised the stress and danger levels. “Worrying about whether the person next to them knows what they’re doing … is not helping”, he said.

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