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.
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.