New Zealand Labour Letter: August 2012

7 Aug

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National Labour News

New Zealand labour joineda national protest against the Government’s plan to sell New Zealand-owned assets. The nationwide protest was endorsed by the Council of Trade Unions and unions such as the Maritime Union of New Zealand and New Zealand Nurses Organisation. The Labour Party, Green Party and Mana Movement also joined in the national action. The demonstrations kicked off July 14 in 11 centres, including Christchurch, Auckland, Wellington and Hamilton. The action was sparked by legislation supported by the Government which passed by one vote to allow the asset sales. Under the Mixed Ownership Model Act, the Government plans to sell up to 49 per cent of Mighty River Power, Genesis, Meridian and Solid Energy. The Government also intends to reduce its shareholding of Air New Zealand, but does not require legislation to act. Mighty River Power is first off the block, possibly starting in September.

A new survey of more than 2,000 people by Right Management shows only 31 per cent of public sector employees feel engaged in their work and just 35 per cent feel connected to their organisation, down from 43 per cent three years ago, reported the Public Service Association. PSA said the results provide “yet more evidence of the negative impact of government budget cuts and on-going restructuring of the public service.” “Thousands of jobs have already been cut and more are expected as government departments are forced to slash a billion dollars out of their budgets over the next few years. There’s a real climate of insecurity and anxiety which does nothing to promote staff involvement or engagement,” said PSA National Secretary Brenda Pilott. The recent findings reinforce the results of a survey of the Inland Revenue staff which found that two-thirds felt either disengaged or ambivalent about their work. In addition, the Westpac McDermott Miller Employment Confidence Index also showed employment confidence among public sector workers at the lowest point since the measure was introduced six years ago. “It’s difficult to feel engaged in your organisation in the face of less resource, constant restructuring, higher workloads and public complaints,” said Pilott.

Rail and Maritime Transport Union issued a warning over safety concerns as a result of KiwiRail’s proposed staff cuts. KiwiRail wants to cut 170 to 220 jobs from its Engineering and Infrastructure division to contribute to spending cuts of $200 million. Rail & Maritime Transport Union General Secretary Wayne Butson said in a statement that locomotive engineers and other operating staff have deep concerns about the impact any cuts could have on their and the public’s health and safety. The union said the recent slip in the Buller Gorge shows that the union’s members work in a “dangerous industry” and need reassurance that their lives will not be put at risk by staffing cuts. The Buller Gorge Road was closed to traffic because of a washout and, the union noted, there have been on-going track problems there for some time. “The slip is in a bad place to get at and will take some fixing. Last time, there were restrictions on the temporary track laid to get around the slip for a very long time until it was fit for normal running,” explained Butson. He said KiwiRail’s Engineering and Infrastructure division performs essential work which will be needed to repair Buller Gorge.

More than 1,000 workers at over 100 engineering and manufacturing shops ratified a new multi-employer agreement that guarantees them wage increases for the next two years, reports the NZ Engineering, Printing & Manufacturing Union (EPMU). The Metals & Manufacturing MECA is the EPMU’s largest multi-employer collective agreement. In a statement, the union reported the agreement provides for two pay rises of 2.8 per cent and 2.1 per cent over the next two years, as well as increased employment protections for casual and temp workers. “This settlement shows that despite the tough economic times, workers who belong to unions are still winning above-inflation pay increases”, said EPMU manufacturing industry organiser Louisa Jones. “Multi-employer agreements like the Metals mean there are common conditions and wage increases across the industry. That means companies are free to compete on quality and productivity rather than who can pay the lowest wages.” She said the union will continue to oppose the government’s plans to make it harder for workers to be part of multi-employer agreements.

National, Economic & Political Events

Overnight shift workers experience higher incidences of heart problems, according to a new study by researchers in Canada and Norway. According to the study, shift workers were 23 per cent more likely to experience a heart attack, 24 per cent more likely to have a coronary event and 5 per cent more likely to suffer a stroke. The results, recently published in the British Medical Journal, were based on data collected from 34 surveys of pore than 2 million workers. “Night shift workers are up all the time and they don’t have a defined rest period. They are in a state of perpetual nervous system activation which is bad for things like obesity and cholesterol,” said lead researcher Dan Hackam, associate professor at Western University, London Ontario in Canada. “It can result in disturbed appetite and digestion, reliance on sedatives and/or stimulants, as well as social and domestic problems.” He also said the increased heart risk could be a result of weight gain associated with insufficient rest.

Labour Party and the Greens criticized government plans to provide bonus shares to public asset buyers, saying poorer New Zealanders will be forced to subsidize those who can afford to buy the shares. Prime Minister John Key recently announced that people who buy shares in the upcoming Mighty River Power float would receive bonus shares if they held on to them for at least three years. According to news reports, buyers will need at least $1,000 to spend on shares. “Why should those who don’t plan to buy shares, for whatever reason, have their taxpayer dollars spent subsidising those who can?” Labour MP Clayton Cosgrove said. “This is a tactic to placate Kiwis’ concerns about giving up our assets to foreign interests, which, under this government’s stewardship, is inevitable.” Green Party Co-leader Russel Norman said the Government’s “fiscally reckless plan” to sell off productive state-owned assets “will be made even worse by this cynical move to offer potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses to wealthy NZ buyers.”

Labour Party’s David Clark introduced a member’s bill to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour. “Making the minimum wage $15 an hour will be a big help to about 264,000 workers and their families. Currently the minimum wage is just $13.50 – well below Australia’s minimum which equates to NZ$19.92. I thought John Key wanted to close the wage gap with Australia,” Clark said. He said boosting wages for the lowest paid New Zealanders will provide “a fair wage for an honest days work” and encourage more young people to stay in the country “rather than join Generation Oz on the other side of the Tasman.” He noted that 40 per cent of the 158,000 kiwis who left for Australia in the last four years were aged 18 – 30. “National’s current low-wage economy is neither economically or socially responsible. Preventable, poverty-related illnesses cost taxpayers millions of dollars through the health system,” he said.

International Labour

The president of the Canadian Labour Congress called on the federal government to take a stronger leadership on health care and retirement issues instead of forcing solutions on the nation’s provincial premiers and territorial leaders. “Canadians are really concerned about health care and retirement security, and they want their governments to work together to resolve these issues,” said CLC President Ken Georgetti. “Unfortunately, the federal government has a unilateral approach toward both health care and pensions. Last year the federal Finance Minister gave the premiers a take-or-leave-it package on the federal contribution to health care through the year 2024. That’s not good enough. We want Ottawa to remain a full partner in our health care system and to negotiate with the premiers on funding.” Georgetti made his comments in Halifax July 27 while monitoring the meeting of Council of the Federation, group to coordinate activities among Canada’s provincial premiers. Georgetti said the CLC’s own polling indicates that people want and expect the federal government to play an important role in making life better for all Canadians. “The premiers want to act on pensions and on health care, and we are calling on Ottawa to put its shoulder to the wheel as well.”

Israel’s Histadrut and the firefighters union signed an historic collective bargaining agreement with the Finance Ministry and the Ministry of Internal Security that for the first time grants them the right to strike. Other big gains include a one-time bonus payment of 10,000 shekels, a 15 per cent pay rise, and an agreed compensation for working shifts, Saturdays or holidays. New firefighters will receive an additional 13 per cent. According to news reports, the agreement is part of a far-reaching reform of the Israeli firefighting services following the disastrous Carmel forest blaze in December 2010 that claimed 44 lives. Israel’s State Comptroller issued a report in June which found a large number of operational failures. In particular, the report blamed the finance and interior ministers, while also naming the internal security minister and the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Colombia has not fully complied with the Labour Action Plan agreed to with the U.S. in the lead up to the Free Trade Agreement, charged a recent report issued by the AFL-CIO. The report asserted that the Colombian government “has made little progress in addressing the needs of workers and their unions … many key commitments remain unfulfilled, and workers report no noticeable changes in their ability to exercise fundamental labour rights.” In April of 2011, the Colombian and U.S. governments negotiated the “Labour Action Plan”, which was a prerequisite to securing the Free Trade Agreement. The agreement was put into place because Colombia has one of the worst rates in the world concerning freedom of association and labour rights, with a record of more than 2,800 killings of trade unionists and members between 1984 and 2011. In 2011, 29 workers’ representatives in Colombia were killed.

Tens of thousands of workers in Egypt’s industrial sectors have been involved in strike action in recent weeks over management attempts to take away benefits, unpaid wages and demands for pay increases, according to media reports. The situation has deteriorated to the point where Egypt’s President Morsi has intervened to settle strikes across the textile sector and at the giant Cleopatra Ceramics in Ain Sokhna, where striking workers agreed to mediation to get unpaid wages from the Mubarak-era factory owner. The trigger for the revolution to depose Hosni Mubarak from the presidency began with a wave of strikes in Mahalla. “Progress in putting effective worker protections and labour laws in place has been slow since the revolution, with business operators having strong links to the old regime and the military resisting change,” said International Trade Union Confederation General Secretary Sharan Burrow. She said President Morsi’s intervention is helpful but does not get to the root of Egypt’s labour problems: “Workers are weary of the top-level political intrigue while basic questions, such as non-payment of wages, are not being dealt with.”

Regional and Local Union News

Ports of Auckland workers who are members of the Maritime Union of New Zealand (MUNZ) recently received productivity bonuses. MUNZ, which is still in negotiations with the port towards a new Collective Agreement, called the bonuses “a positive sign.” MUNZ National President Garry Parsloe said workers were showing strong commitment and hard work even in the current stressful environment. “Our members just want to concentrate on their jobs, and providing for their families, with some security going forward, and this is reflected by their productivity,” he said. Parsloe said that recent remarks made by Ports of Auckland Limited CEO Tony Gibson about poor productivity made no sense when productivity bonuses were being paid to workers. He added that a process of incremental, negotiated productivity improvements had gotten results and would continue to do so if secure jobs were promoted at the port. Parsloe also reported that good progress was being made through facilitation towards a settlement.

Close to 70 members of the New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) and the Service and Food Workers Union (SFWU) launched a three-day work stoppage beginning July 17 at Aranui Home and Hospital in Auckland over a wage dispute. The workers have been trying to negotiate a new contract since October 2011 and are angry that management has refused to offer a “fair” pay increase. According to the unions, the majority of Aranui rest home care staff is paid the minimum wage of $13.50 an hour and over the past 11 years have only had increases when the law has been changed to increase the minimum wage. “The Human Rights Commission’s recently released report exposed the crisis of modern day slavery occurring in residential aged care. Aranui is a very good example of this slavery. These workers are shown little respect for the complex work they do or the fact that they are the core of the employer’s business,” said NZNO Industrial Advisor Rob Haultain.

Another near mining disaster led to renewed calls by labour for stronger mine safety regulations. Twenty-eight miners were recently trapped underground for several hours at the Trio gold mine on the North Island before they were rescued unharmed. The miners were 150m underground when a truck engine caught fire forcing the evacuation of Newmont Waihi Gold’s underground Trio mine at Waihi. Investigations into the incident are being carried out by Newmont, the Department of Labour and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s high hazards unit. The Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union again called for the adoption of Queensland practices which include the workers’ election of an independent safety representative to signal the alarm in emergencies. In November 2010, an explosion at the Pike River mine on the South Island killed 29 people in what was New Zealand’s worst mining disaster in almost a century. A final report on the investigation is due by the end of September.

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