Archive | April, 2013

Our Afghanistan embarrassment

28 Apr

By Matt McCarten

Last Sunday morning I was on TVNZ as a Q+A panelist.

One of the guests was Major General Dave Gawn, the head of our army. He was asked, now we are leaving, whether our more than decade-long mission in Afghanistan was a success.

His extended pause was the answer. The best he could come up with was that he hoped the locals would remember our presence fondly after they return to their pre-invasion status. Presumably he wasn’t referring to the families of the locals who died in the US-led mission.

Official closing ceremony of Kiwi Base in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Photo / NZ Defence Force

Our original mission in invading Afghanistan was to help the US capture Osama bin Laden. On arrival, the western armies overthrew the zealot Taleban rulers and installed a corrupt government made up of brutal warlords nominally headed by a US puppet.

Embarrassingly, after blunders by US politicians, bin Laden and his entourage decamped to Pakistan.

After bin Laden’s departure, no one could think of what to do next. In lieu of any strategy, New Zealand was assigned as the occupation force in the Bamiyan province.

As propaganda, our troops built schools and hospitals as our elite SAS killed Afghan resistance. For political cover we label them al Qaeda, although that group as a force no longer really exists in Afghanistan.

Our evacuation leaves the people of Bamiyan to the rule of the victorious Taleban, who even the most ardent supporters of the invasion acknowledge will play the key role in the post-occupation government.

As admission of our failure, we brought our military’s 33 Afghan interpreters and their families to New Zealand. If we had left them behind they would have been arrested and possibly executed for collaborating with the foreign occupation. Hardly the actions of a government that believes we won over the people of Bamiyan.

It’s a pity thousands of Afghans and 10 Kiwi soldiers had to die because a delusional bin Laden, a former ally of the US, financed 17 of his fellow Saudis to fly a couple of planes into the Twin Towers.

Afghanistan has parallels with Gallipoli. On Thursday, like many Kiwis, I attended an Anzac ceremony.

We want to believe the sacrifices of our soldiers mean something noble. But at Gallipoli and in Afghanistan we fell over ourselves to invade another country at the behest of a super-power. We killed peasants defending their own country. Wouldn’t we defend our country in those circumstances?

Despite our superior troops and armament, we lost.

The answer to the question on whether our Afghanistan mission was a success is simple. It was not.

At Anzac services attendees are solemnly urged to remember the lessons of Gallipoli. Yeah, right.

– Herald on Sunday

(Matt McCarten is National Secretary of Unite Union. His weekly Herald on Sunday column are a commentary on social and political issues in New Zealand. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Unite Union.)

Employment Relations Bill will cut workers’ pay

26 Apr

By Helen Kelly, President, Council of Trade Unions

The changes announced today to employment law represent the most serious attack on the rights of working people to a fair go since 1991. As I wrote on this blog that the Bill will reduce the Employment Relations Act to a farce and the result will be wages are driven down and employment agreements broken up, with some of the most significant impact being on workers in the public sector.

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Helen Kelly speaking at Union picket

It was astonishing to see the Minister’s statement this morning saying the Bill would speed up processes in the Employment Relations Authority! This is a political tactic of this Government to play down its worst legislation as “clarifications” or improvements when they are anything but.

The Bill removes the duty to conclude a collective agreement. NZ has committed to international obligations to promote collective bargaining and it is the key mechanism for distribution within a workplace or industry. This Bill will breach those obligations including where we have committed to them as part of our trade agreements.

The removal of this duty means employers are able to not only surface bargain (turn up to bargaining but have no intention of concluding a collective), but they can state a preference for individual agreements. Employers will be able to apply to the Employment Relations Authority for a ruling that bargaining is concluded. If this is granted, the collective agreement still in force (collectives run for a year after expiry to enable the parties to negotiate renewal) instantly ends, leaving workers no longer covered (let’s call this the Port of Auckland clause!). Parties then have to wait 60 days in this unprotected state before they can initiate again for a collective or take any strike action in pursuit of a collective. During this time, the employer can do all it can to undermine the union and the bargaining, or as the Port tried to do, sack the labour and contract it out. Can you also imagine the fun Talleys will have!

For workers starting and changing jobs, many go to work now and there is no collective in place. The terms they are employed under are unilaterally determined by their employer and for most, they have no option but to accept them (that is why almost 300,000 workers in the country earn on or near the minimum wage). Those lucky enough to have a job offer in a unionised site (including for example in hospitals, schools, councils, manufacturing plants, progressive supermarkets, Warehouse, meat works, Air NZ etc), have to be offered the collective conditions for the first 30 days of work so they can decide if they want to be on the collective. This provision is being axed and employers will now be able to exclude these workers altogether from collective coverage. This method will be used to de-unionise union sites and to destroy the collective agreement over time. We have seen this before and the victims are both those new workers (every worker starting a new job in places with a collective), but also those already in the workplace as the collective begins to only cover the established workforce.

The Bill also introduces a Strike Tax. Workers that take partial industrial action (say teachers refusing to take Saturday sport) can be taxed 10% of their wages even though they are still doing all the hours required of them. Fire fighters hate taking strike action – they sometimes take action like not filling in fire reports – they work their full shift – fight every fire in town – but could be taxed 10% of their pay (or more if the employer wants!) for taking this action. There is no reciprocity for a partial lock out. If an employer for example takes partial lock out action – and as a result the workers lose work and wages, there is no reciprocal penalty.

The Bill excludes employers in cleaning and hospitality that employ less than 20 employees from the transfer of undertakings provision. This was a revolution for cleaners and hospitality workers when it was introduced. Subject to instant job loss when their boss lost a cleaning or catering contract, this provision protected them by ensuring they transferred to the new employer. The Government is removing this protection. They are dreaming of a country where economic growth is built on “mum and dad” cleaning companies starting up all over the place with no obligations to the cleaning workforce. This will see the proliferation of small cleaning companies, competing for work on the price of labour, exploiting these invisible workers to the maximum and removing any hope of security of employment. Large cleaning companies will be disadvantaged if they choose to maintain their collectives and operate at a national level. They can be undercut and will be forced to drive wages down (how low can they go?).

The Bill removes the minimum entitlement to a tea break. I asked a forestry owner recently why they were working forest workers to death without proper breaks etc. He told me they could have a break when they refilled their chainsaws with gas! The Bill means these breaks will not be compulsory anymore and employers can introduce unspecified “compensatory measures” when they don’t provide for them.

The Bill allows employers to refuse to negotiate for multi-employer agreements. This is the direct attack on agreements that for example cover teachers and nurses, clerical staff in hospitals, support staff in schools etc. Kindergarten teachers and support staff can tell you the story of this when they were deregulated in the 1990’s. This will enable the Government to refuse to renegotiate these agreements when they expire.

The Bill is being introduced at a time when workers can’t live on the wages they are being paid, when safety is at an all-time low and improved conditions of employment are needed to resolve this, and when unemployment is a massive problem. This Bill works against any of these issues being improved. Wages will decrease (they did last time law like this was in play), unions will be driven out for new workers and work will become more dangerous for them, and those seeking work will be exploited because of the desperation of being unemployed. Unions increase wages and improve conditions through collective bargaining. This Bill attacks collective bargaining as a process and is totally biased in favour of bad employers.

There is no problem being address by this Bill. It is an all-out ideological statement about who the Government acts for. It is not good for business to take this low road approach and is part of our economic failure that there is little room for those that want to be better than this. I don’t expect the national business organisations to do anything but support this. I hope some major employers will speak out against it as some did the youth rates. It is time for a better approach to work in this country – today is a giant step backwards.

Today is a bad day for this country.

New Zealand Labour Letter, April 2013, Vol. 4 No. 4

23 Apr

The New Zealand Labour Letter is produced as a service to the labour movement by AIL of New Zealand Ltd.

National Labour News

Forest safety campaign intensified as FIRST Union General Secretary Robert Reid called for a government inquiry to address the alarming rate of injuries and fatalities in forestry. Three forestry workers have died since January of this year, the union said, and “deaths in forestry are of the magnitude of a Pike River disaster every 6 to 7 years.” Meanwhile, the Council of Trade Unions launched a “What Killed Ken Callow?” billboard on Auckland’s Khyber Pass on April 4, part of a campaign calling for Minister of Labour Simon Bridges to initiate an investigation into forest safety. The billboard is funded by donations across the country through OneBigVoice.Com. Gisborne forestry worker Ken Callow died in 2011 and his parents were in Auckland for the launch.

New Zealand Education Institute said the government should “open the books” on groups that want to set up charter schools. The union appealed to the Ombudsman after the Ministry of Education refused to release a list of groups that have indicated an interest in setting up charter schools. “The proposed charter school legislation and authorising processes had no provision for consultation with the communities or other schools in areas where charter schools might be set up. It makes sense that local people and schools should be able to fi nd out as early as possible what the impacts might be for them,” said NZEI Te Riu Roa president Judith Nowotarski. NZEI said the Minister’s decision “is an example of the lack of transparency” and accountability throughout the introduction of the National/ACT charter school policy. “This is privatisation through the back door without any mandate and without accountability, given that charter schools will not be subject to the Offi cial Information or the Ombusdmen Acts,” Nowotarski said.

Labour groups strongly criticized a bill the government is preparing to pass that will introduce sanctions, drug testing and other draconian measures to pressure unemployed workers back into the job market. Eileen Brown, Council of Trade Union Policy Analyst, said the bill is based on the “false ideas that unemployed people don’t want to work” and that enough jobs exist for everyone. “It’s already hard for families who are looking for work; these changes only make it tougher for them to get by. We have 163,000 offi cially unemployed, 284,000 jobless and 111,000 wanting more work. We are seeing large scale redundancies,” she said. She said the “threat of sanctions and other punitive measures” will force people into low quality, low paid, high risk jobs. “The Government needs to gear itself to job creation and support for people who are out of work and at risk of losing their jobs. Instead these will introduce sanctions and bring in draconian measures like drug testing that even their official advice was against,” she said.

Public Service Association national secretary Brenda Pilott said, “the conveyor belt of job cuts in the core public service” should raise concerns in the public mind. “What is the impact of these cuts on people who work in those services and are coming under greater pressure? And secondly, are the cracks beginning to show in terms of the quality of service delivery,” she asked. She noted that the Pike River inquiry found that the number and level of support for the mine inspectors was a part of the picture there. Under National, the size of the total public service has dropped 45,297 to 43,345. In addition, around 2500 vacancies exist across the core public service, a fi gure largely unchanged over several years.

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Workers News w/e 21/4/13

22 Apr

WORKRIGHTS NZ

Mondayising bill passes its final hurdle http://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=10878134

Maximum penalties not enough for Pike River Directors http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PO1304/S00228/maximum-penalties-not-enough-for-pike-river-directors.htm

Government urged to act sooner on Foreign Charter Vessels http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PO1304/S00123/government-urged-to-act-sooner-on-foreign-charter-vessels.htm

Key’s broken promise on raising wages By Frank Macskasy http://thedailyblog.co.nz/2013/04/12/keys-broken-promise-on-raising-wages/

Retail giants reject new youth wage http://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=10876152&ref=fbheadline

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Higher GST and tax cuts?

22 Apr

Question 23: Among the solutions to the economic problems we have today are those tried last time – higher GST and cuts to  the top marginal tax rate. What will be the effect today?

The effect of these changes will be the same as last time – increased taxation on working people, less tax on the rich, and a growth in inequality and poverty.

We are being told that reducing the top tax rates and increasing GST will again be beneficial to “the economy”. If it didn’t work last time why should we expect it to this time?

Working people pay their taxes from their wages before they see it. They also pay GST, petrol taxes, user charges and the various “sin” taxes for liking alcohol or tobacco. All these taxes (whatever the alleged benefits on our health or the environment) are grossly unfair as they take a much larger proportion of our incomes than the rich. We never have a choice.

The bosses however treat taxation as some sort of voluntary activity. They look on the government as some charity to which they may donate if they feel motivated. They don’t like taxes and as often as not avoid paying them.

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Matt McCarten: An energy plan to hit profiteers

22 Apr

Just when we thought the sell-off of our public utilities was inevitable, the Labour and Green Party jointly announced on Thursday that if they become government next year, they will create an agency, NZ Power, that will be the sole buyer of wholesale electricity.

The Government’s asset sale campaign distracts us from the structural unfairness of power prices. Photo / Mark Mitchell

It will effectively have the ability to set electricity prices by using its monopoly to buy electricity from wholesalers and sell on to retailers, regulating fair profit levels for the players in the sector.

The current situation that allows providers to make exorbitant profits at the expenses of New Zealander consumers will end.

The Government was caught flatfooted, going into panic mode. They knew exactly what this policy would do – kneecap its privatisation agenda.

The only reason the sale of Mighty River and the other companies makes any sense is that their profits are excessive because we all pay far too much for our power.

An agency that restricts excessive profiteering will put off quick-profit investors currently lining up for power shares. The best that unofficial co-prime minister Steven Joyce could come up with was his spluttered comment that the agency was a basket-case idea from Albania. Is that the best he can do?

In any event, the correct international example to use overseas would be capitalist California, which brought in a similar agency to stop its power companies from ripping off its citizens. It has worked fine.

At home, the parallel in the health sector is Pharmac, which uses its buying monopoly to negotiate prices with multinational drug companies. It saves us billions of dollars. I haven’t heard the Government suggesting abolishing it and leaving prescription prices to the international free market.

The National Party’s core constituency, the farmers, worked this out long ago, too. Fonterra does the exact same thing for its farmer members, using their collective muscle to get the best prices for them.

In any event, the Government’s asset sale campaign distracts us from the structural unfairness of power prices. The Labour-Green initiative fixes our power price problem.

Household electricity prices currently increase at double the rate of inflation.

The gap between prices charged households and businesses are the second highest in the OECD.

Two-thirds of our electricity is generated by using free water and dams that were built years ago. The four big generators made $4.3 billion. That’s $1000 profit for every man, woman and child.

No surprises, then, that the Government sees a political upside in selling these companies off at inflated prices to prospective investors who assume this excess will continue.

Labour and the Greens state their policy will save most households a flat $300 a year and businesses will get a 5 per cent cut in their power bills.

They have also produced an independent report that says the changes will create 5000 jobs and boost the economy by $450 million.

In other words, it’s good news on all fronts – price reductions, more jobs, economic stimulus. But the power companies’ excess profits will stop, and the Government’s asset sale programme looks shaky.

If you are one of the people who put their name down to buy power shares, you might want to check with your stockbroker first thing tomorrow morning.

This week, your potential investment moved from a money-for-jam scheme to a decidedly political gamble on who will win the next election.

By Matt McCarten
Herald on Sunday

(Matt McCarten is National Secretary of Unite Union. His weekly Herald on Sunday column are a commentary on social and political issues in New Zealand. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Unite Union.)

The true horrifying depths of NZ Child Poverty

19 Apr

By Mike Treen

There have been a whole raft of reports over the last few weeks detailing the appalling levels of child poverty in New Zealand. An expert advisory group to the Children’s Commissioner has also spelt out the best means to end it.

Yet the government says it is not even measuring child poverty let alone doing anything to end it. Why is that?

Child poverty doubled in the late 1980s and early 1990s and has basically remained at that level since.

Screen Shot 2013-04-19 at 7.37.40 AMAt the time the government imposed economic and social policies that radically increased the levels of unemployment and the number of people forced to live off a benefit – unemployment, sickness, or sole parent. The goal was to break the power of the trade unions and increase competition among working people for the jobs available – thereby forcing down real wages.

The “theory” they went by was that once they had succeeded in increasing “competitiveness” of New Zealand capitalism by lowering its costs in relation to other countries then the economy would begin to grow strongly.

As it turned out the economic decline of those years was followed by an even more moderate growth phase from the mid 1990s on so that we actually fell behind the capitalist competitors abroad and NZ capitalism had a declining share of world exports!

Wikipedia sums up the story for us: “Between 1985 and 1992, New Zealand’s economy grew by 4.7% during the same period in which the average OECD nation grew by 28.2%.[21] From 1984–1993 inflation averaged 9% per year, New Zealand’s credit rating dropped twice, and foreign debt quadrupled.[19] Between 1986 and 1993, the unemployment rate rose from 3.6% to 11%.[22]’

What the government was successful at was lowering real wages and increasing the proportion of GDP going to capital compared to labour equivalent to about 10% of GDP – a value of about $20 billion in today’s dollars.

Households made up for the loss in real wages by working more hours (principally by more women and young people) and going into debt.

A report by Simon Collins in the New Zealand Herald 25/11/06 found that average family income in 2001 in constant dollars was the same as in 1981 despite the fact that the proportion of women working went from 47% to 61% and the percentage of families working 50+ hours a week went from half to two thirds.

Household debt also more than doubled as a share of GDP.

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