Labour Letter (June 2012)

7 Jun

Below is the latest edition of the New Zealand Labour Letter published by AIL.

AIL of NZ offers our congratulations to members of the NZ Meat Workers Union for successfully reaching a new settlement with Affco. We are proud to have supported the workers during this difficult 12-week struggle. Details of this story are reported in this month’s edition.

This online newsletter is published as a service to Labour by AIL of New Zealand Ltd. Your subscription is provided at no cost to you. Please encourage your colleagues, members and co-workers to register for their no-cost subscription to the New Zealand Labour Letter at www.ailnews.com.

The New Zealand Labour Letter is part of the growing family of international Labour newsletters published by AIL which include the U.S. Labor Letter and the Canadian Labour Letter.

In Solidarity,

Steve Friedlander
State General Agent, AIL in New Zealand

June 2012, Vol. 3 No. 6

National Labour News

The New Zealand Meat Workers Union and meat processor Affco settled on a new collective agreement May 22, ending a bitter 12-week industrial dispute. ”The settlement secures the core issues of concern to our members. It retains protection of wages and employment security and ensures workers continue to have their terms and conditions set by a union negotiated agreement,” Union president Mike Nahu said. Nahu later told the news media, “From our point of view we’ve got the union protection and issues that we wanted addressed for our members. From the company’s point of view, they’ve probably got a wee bit of the flexibility they wanted in terms of the agreement.” The dispute rallied New Zealand labour to the workers’ cause and attracted international labour support. The union and management credited the involvement of Tainui head Tuku Morgan, Ngapuhi chairman Sonny Tau and Wanganui activist Ken Mair for achieving progress in the dispute. Maori comprise about 75 per cent of union membership at plants affected by the industrial turmoil.

Maritime Union of New Zealand called for “a complete overhaul” of New Zealand’s shipping policy to avoid a repeat of the Rena disaster. The union’s General Secretary Joe Fleetwood said deregulated Flag of Convenience shipping is the main problem. “The approach for the last generation has been for Government to abdicate its responsibility to ensure standards in the maritime industry,” he said. Rena-style incidents were “almost guaranteed” as long as Flag of Convenience shipping was given a “free ride” in New Zealand waters, Fleetwood asserted. “The surprising thing is how long it took for a shipping disaster of this type to happen, not that it did happen.” Fleetwood said the Australian government has passed a series of bills to regenerate Australian owned and Australian crewed shipping. He said the reintroduction of cabotage (giving priority to New Zealand owned and crewed shipping) is back on the agenda following Australia’s actions.

New Zealand labour described the National government’s recently introduced budget as “austerity-lite” that risks sending the economy back into recession. Council of Trade Unions Economist Bill Rosenberg warned the “zero budget” is based on the “same failed logic” of austerity that is being rejected in Europe. He said “you can’t have growth and austerity, it just doesn’t work. With government debt still among the lowest in the OECD, it had room to move with real investment in job creation, economic growth, and looking after those who are most vulnerable.” He warned that the proposed tax increases will only raise $289 million in the next fiscal year and fails to address the loss of revenue from the 2010 changes that cut taxes for the rich while increasing the GST, which hit working families hardest. “We’ve seen high GDP growth forecasts time and again, but they have never actually showed up. Instead we have seen unemployment exceeding forecasts, lasting longer and affecting more people,” he warned.

Education sector groups met recently to coordinate action following the Government’s budget announcement that new teacher-student ratios in schools will increase to one teacher to 27.5 students beginning in 2013. The groups include the NZ Education Institute, NZ Association of Intermediate and Middle Schooling, NZ School Trustees, Post Primary Teachers Association, New Zealand Principals’ Federation, Secondary Principals’ Association of NZ, and the PPTA Secondary Principals Council. “The outrage has been building throughout the education sector at the decision to cut frontline teaching staff despite the election promise that this would not happen,” the groups said in a joint news statement. “Principals, teachers and parents are incredulous that despite the concerns about the effect of increased class sizes on the quality of our public education system, the Government has not withdrawn its flawed policy.” The group seeks to mobilize teachers and parents to pressure the government to reverse its Budget decisions.

The Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union is considering demands to have guarantees of earthquake building safety written into collective employment contracts. Delegates will vote on the proposal in July. The union wants employers to prove that their buildings meet the earthquake code and to take corrective actions if they don’t. EPMU national secretary Bill Newson said people have the right to a safe workplace and the union is not ruling out striking if necessary. “We’re not all about to walk off the job and declare World War III over this issue. But certainly if employers haven’t done the assessment, won’t do the assessment, then we’re going to have to make it the subject of a formal claim in bargaining,” he said. The union noted that the devastating earthquakes in Canterbury and the Pike River tragedy revealed to workers how unsafe some workplaces are.

The New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations criticised the National government’s decision to cut support for students “so it can pay for its tax cuts for the rich”, said the group’s President Pete Hodkinson. “This is a re-run of the last National government in the late 1990s which also cut student support as it cut taxes”, he said. The government recently announced that for 2012/13 it would not be shifting the parental income thresholds at which allowances are abated, and has fixed the student loan repayment threshold at $19,084 until 2015. “The inevitable consequence of not lifting the repayment threshold is a tighter squeeze on those that can afford it the least. And frankly that’s just wrong”, said Hodkinson.

National, Economic & Political Events

New Zealand’s economy will struggle over the next two years and remain stagnant, predicted a major think tank. “There is little economic growth and the outlook is challenging,” New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) Principal Economist Shamubeel Eaqub said in the group’s Quarterly Predictions report. NZIER attributed the nation’s economic woes to delays to the Canterbury earthquake rebuild, reluctant consumers, slowing growth in major trading partners, and sluggish investment. The country is going through a period of paying down debt, and along with a weak labour market, anaemic wage growth and consumer demand would combine to limit growth to around 1.5 per cent in 2012, the group said. “Low interest rates are not encouraging new borrowing and investing, as we pay down debt or deleverage,” said Eaqub. The Institute predicted growth would pick up to 2.5 per cent in 2013, little changed from its first quarter forecasts, and 2.4 per cent the year after.

A new survey showed that seven out of ten New Zealanders would consider switching not only jobs but also industries during their working life. The findings were based on the responses of more than 1,200 Kiwis interviewed as part of the New Zealand Workforce Survey conducted by Seek, the country’s largest job source. For those who wanted to switch jobs, 30 per cent cited a change in lifestyle for a better work-life balance as the biggest reason. The “push” factor for those wanting a complete career change came from lower job satisfaction, 19 per cent, and better opportunities, 18 per cent. “We know that one in two Kiwis are prepared to look for a new role in the next six months, but a complete vocational shift is another thing altogether,” said. Janet Faulting, the general manager of Seek NZ. “Career transitions often require a deeper level of planning and self-evaluation than looking for a new job in your current industry.”

Labour MP Louisa Wall released a new Member’s Bill June 1 that would grant same-sex couples the same right to marry and formalise their relationship as other New Zealanders. Her bill would amend the Marriage Act of 1955 to end discrimination against same-sex couples. “The Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill will ensure that all New Zealanders have the right to marry regardless of their sex, sexual orientation or gender identity,” she said. “At the moment, the only option for same sex couples to formalise their relationship is to have a civil union, or to travel overseas to one of the growing number of jurisdictions that recognise same-sex marriage. Some would prefer to have a New Zealand marriage ceremony and they deserve that right.” She said the measure would ensure “that all New Zealanders have equal opportunity to recognise their relationship within the social and legal institution of marriage, if they so choose.”

International Labour

A new report from the International Labour Organisation found the transformation to a greener economy could generate 15 to 60 million additional jobs globally over the next two decades and lift tens of millions of workers out of poverty. The study “Working towards sustainable development: Opportunities for decent work and social inclusion in a green economy,” was led by the ILO’s Green Jobs Initiative. The report said, however, these gains depend on whether the right set of government policies are put into place. “The current development model has proven to be inefficient and unsustainable, not only for the environment, but for economies and societies as well”, said ILO Director-General Juan Somavia. “We urgently need to move to a sustainable development path with a coherent set of policies with people and the planet at the centre.” The report found that while changes will be felt throughout the economy, eight key sectors are expected to play a central role and be mostly affected: agriculture, forestry, fishing, energy, resource-intensive manufacturing, recycling, building and transport.

Despite pledges to halt labour violations, working conditions have barely improved at Foxconn’s gargantuan Chinese factories that assemble Apple products, said workers’ rights activists and employees. Hong Kong-based labour watchdog group Student & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) issued a new report May 31 which found rights violations “remain the norm” including high production targets, inhumane treatment and signs of overall salary cuts. The report was based on visits to several Foxconn factories and 170 worker interviews. “The frontline management continue to impose humiliating disciplinary measures on workers,” the report said. “The above findings demonstrate that Apple and Foxconn have not turned over a new leaf.” Foxconn Technology Group, Apple’s main global contract manufacturer run by Taiwanese tycoon Terry Gou, employs 1.2 million workers in China. The firm has come under fire in recent years for running massive “sweatshops” to mass produce high-end iPads and iPhones.

Some 2,000 Burmese workers have waged a sit-strike at the Hi Mo wig factory in Rangoon’s Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone since May 17. Recently, the Korean owner of the factory cut all food supplies and electricity inside the workers barracks that they have been occupying at the plant in an attempt to starve them out. The Hi Mo wig factory workers began their strike on May 9, but reached an agreement the following day with the management that wages be increased to 30,000 kyat. But the Korean factory owner refused to honour the agreement, and the workers resumed strike action by occupying the plants. The workers said they will continue their strike until the factory manager agrees to the previous deal. “It is not just one factory, but a whole series of factory disputes,” said Nay Myo Zin, a former political prisoner who now heads the Myanmar Social Development Network. “The factory owners simply refuse to negotiate because they believe the workers are powerless to resist them. They think that, eventually, the strikers will simply have to come back to work.”

Persecution of trade unionists remains a problem in El Salvador even though the country is governed by a left-wing party that advocates labour rights, union leaders report. “People are still fearful of organising or strengthening trade unions,” Róger Gutiérrez, a leader of the Federation of Independent Associations and Unions of El Salvador (FEASIES), which has 10 member organisations, told international labour groups. He noted that during the 1980-1992 civil war, which left a death toll of 80,000, far-right death squads abducted and murdered political opponents, including many trade union activists. Gutiérrez said the greatest problems are in the private sector, where unions continue to be repressed because they are seen as harmful to free enterprise. In certain business sectors, such as textile factories assembling goods for export under the duty-free “maquila” system, dismissals of trade unionists or the setting up of parallel pro-employer unions are particularly common.

In Australia, some 800 Fairfax Media staff, employed by newspapers such as the Sydney Morning Herald, Melbourne’s The Age and the Australian Financial Review, staged a 36-hour strike beginning May 30 to protest job cuts. Staff at the Canberra Times joined the industrial action the following day. Fairfax recently eliminated 66 sub-editing and other editorial production positions at two major regional newspapers, the Newcastle Herald and the Wollongong-based Illawarra Mercury, as well as several smaller local publications. The company intends to contract-out the work for its Newcastle and Wollongong regional newspapers to a facility in New Zealand. Last year, the company eliminated 90 sub-editing and other jobs at Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and shed more than 260 production jobs at Fairfax printing plants in both Australia and New Zealand. Similar to media in other countries, the newspapers have suffered significant drops in circulation and advertising revenues as more people turn to on-line sources for information.

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