NEW ZEALAND LABOUR LETTER (February 2013, Vol. 4 No. 2)

28 Feb

Published by AIL NZ as a service to the labour movement

National Labour News

Creation of a Crown stand-alone health and safety agency, a key recommendation of the Royal Commission on Pike River, received universal praise from New Zealand’s unions. “Creating a stand-alone agency will also give health and safety the more singular status it deserves,” said Public Service Association National Secretary Richard Wagstaff. Council of Trade Unions President Helen Kelly welcomed the announcement and pledged “the union movement is committed to working with the Government to improve the health and safety of our workforce”. She noted New Zealand has an accident rate at work that is twice that of Australia and seven times worse than the United Kingdom. Minister Simon Bridges said the new Crown agency will enforce workplace health and safety regulations and work with employers and employees to promote and embed good health and safety practices. He said the new agency would set a target of a 25 per cent reduction in workplace fatality and serious injury rates by 2020. Legislation to establish the agency is expected to be introduced to Parliament in June and the agency will be in place by December.

Pike River mine entrance

The Rail and Maritime Transport Union expressed disappointment that the government will not conduct an inquiry into a deal between KiwiRail and a Chinese firm to purchase rolling stock. Auditor-General Lyn Provost will not look into the purchase because KiwiRail made the decision for “normal business and commercial reasons.” The union’s general secretary Wayne Butson said an investigation should have been held to determine whether KiwiRail considered its obligations as a state-owned enterprise operating for New Zealand’s best interests. He charged this decision is the latest example of the Government’s lack of interest in using KiwiRail to support jobs. KiwiRail last year purchased freight wagons from China Northern Locomotive and Rolling Stock Industry Corporation because its price of $31 million was the cheapest. KiwiRail’s own workshops in Dunedin at the time put in an unsuccessful tender for $37 million.

New Zealand’s dollar is overvalued and the government must take action to achieve a balanced exchange rate, said the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union. The union responded to Finance Minister Bill English’s claim that bringing down the New Zealand dollar would mean a cut in real wages. “Workers and employers are united in calling for action on the exchange rate because we see first-hand the damage the high dollar is doing to New Zealand’s manufacturing sector,” said EPMU National Secretary Bill Newson. He said a high wage economy needs a balanced exchange rate and a strong manufacturing sector. “The reality is imported consumer goods don’t drive wage growth. High wages come from having a strong productive sector and good employment laws that ensure the benefits of growth are shared with workers,” he said.

National, Economic & Political Events

A new report released by the Family Centre Social Policy Research Unit identified $18.40 an hour as the living wage for New Zealand. The report was prepared by Charles Waldegrave and Peter King, who are best known for their work in establishing the New Zealand poverty line. “The report establishes a minimal figure for a worker in New Zealand not only to provide the basic necessities but to have a decent, but modest family and community life,” said Waldegrave. The report received strong support from across the community. “The report confirms what workers have increasingly been saying. They can’t live on the minimum wage and this provides evidence that workers need at least $18.40 just to get by in New Zealand,” said Service and Food Workers Union National Secretary, John Ryall. Labour Leader David Shearer said the Labour Party would champion the living wage alongside community groups “to do what we can to support the movement.” The campaign for a living wage is a joint community and union effort.

NZ Labour Party charged the national government is failing young people after releasing information that shows more young workers are claiming the unemployment benefit in every region of the country than when National took power in 2008. According to figures collated by Labour, the biggest increases were in Nelson-Marlborough-West Coast, Taranaki-Whanganui-King Country, East Coast, Bay of Plenty and Northland, all up more than 100 per cent between December 2008 and December 2012. Labour MP Jacinda Ardern said National pledged youth unemployment was a main priority but both the youth unemployment and NEET rates are higher than when they took office. “Every young person should have a plan when they leave school,” she said. Instead the Government was restricting youth transition services, which offered support to young people looking for training or employment, a select group of 16 and 17-year-olds, Ardern said.

International Labour

Canada’s unions called for higher pension payments from the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) and other pension reforms as federal and provincial officials recently gathered for a week-long national summit on pensions to address the nation’s retirement crisis. In recent years, tens of thousands of Canadian retirees have seen their pensions wiped out during bankruptcy proceedings. Under the current rules, working people who’ve paid into pension plans have little protection when their employer goes under. Meanwhile, fewer than 40 per cent of Canadian workers are covered by an employer pension plan while the CPP covers only half the average wage of the public pensions that exist in most high-income countries. Canadian labour has called for doubling CPP benefits over the next seven years and protecting employee pensions in bankruptcy proceedings.

Tens of thousands of Greeks took part in the first general strike of 2013 on February 20 in a fresh round of protests over austerity measures. The strike shut schools and left hospitals with emergency staffing. Domestic flights and long-distance train services also were cancelled. The 24-hour walkout was called by Greece’s two biggest trade unions, representing half the four million-strong workforce. According to news reports, crowds marched towards parliament in Athens where minor clashes broke out at one stage when police fired tear gas at hooded youths throwing stones. Demonstrations also took place in Crete and in the second largest city of Thessaloniki, where some 17,000 people protested peacefully. Ilias Iliopoulos, Secretary-General of Adedy public sector union, said the strike was an attempt to “get rid of the bailout deal”. “A social explosion is very near,” he said. The strikes came days before international lenders are due in the capital to discuss the next instalment of a bailout.

Eleven major Indian unions waged a two-day nationwide strike February 20-21 that paralysed banking and transport services across India, according to news media reports. Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) President A.K. Padmanabhan and All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) General Secretary Gurudas Dasgupta said the action drew an “overwhelming response” and was “unprecedented.” The unions have demanded concrete measures for containing inflation, job creation policies, universal social security, and raising the minimum wage to Rs. 10,000 per month. “All the central trade unions congratulate the working people of India for their overwhelming and magnificent response to the united call for two-day country wide strike,” Dasgupta said.

The U.S. International Association of Auto Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAWA) entered into a formal alliance with the Australian Workers Union to take on multinational companies and “union-busting” political parties. The alliance, similar to the one entered into with the U.S. United Steelworkers eight years ago, was recently approved by the AWU’s 500 national conference delegates. AWU National Secretary Paul Howes said his union would learn from industrial bodies in the U.S. how to campaign and engage with communities. IAWA President Thomas Buffenbarger told the conference that the alliance “could not come at a more critical time.” “Above all, it … means taking it right to those companies that are hell-bent on union busting and their political cronies who make it easy for them to think that they could be successful,” he said. The AWU is the nation’s oldest and largest blue-collar trade union representing more than 135,000 working men and women and their families.

Regional and Local Union News

FIRST Union reported ANZ in New Zealand plans to send 36 Auckland jobs to Bangalore. The jobs will be in the financial institution’s lending services unit. Union representative Robert Reid said bank officials recently met with the union and staff over the proposal. Reid said 14 news jobs will be created, “but that still leaves a net loss of 22 jobs.” He was told the proposal will take effect from mid-July if approved. FIRST Union went public with the proposal after reports that ANZ in Australia planned to offshore 131 back office jobs mostly from Sidney. Sixty staff would be redeployed while 71 others would lose their jobs. “In both the New Zealand and Australian cases, these job losses caused by offshoring are completely unnecessary, given the profitability the bank is enjoying,” Reid said. ANZ in New Zealand is one of the country’s biggest companies, employing nearly 20 per cent of all employees in the New Zealand finance and insurance sector work.

After 130 years in operation in the North Otago town of Oamaru, Summit Wool Spinners closed. The plant’s 192 staff will be made redundant, although some jobs could be rehired by new owners, according to news reports. The workers are represented by the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU). Sumitomo, the company’s Japanese owner, has been trying to sell the plant for two years due to falling demand for wool carpet in New Zealand and the high exchange rate. Canterbury Spinners, a subsidiary of Godfrey Hirst, made a conditional offer to buy the plant at the end of February, provided the business can be made viable. “Sumitomo has treated the people extremely well. The fact that we’re able to negotiate some enhancements to the people who stay till the end is an indication of the good faith that is between both Sumitomo and the employees,” said EPMU’s John Gardner.

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