Labour Day nothing to celebrate

28 Oct

By Matt McCarten

Herald on Sunday, 27 October, 2013

MP’s are about to get a pay rise

It’s Labour Day tomorrow. It’s ironic that many low-paid workers are made to work Monday as any other day.

The first Labour Day was a defiant rally organised by Wellington workers in 1890. The famous eight-hour campaigner, Samuel Parnell, weeks away from death, was the honoured guest.

Within a year, workers elected the Liberal Government, which ruled for 21 years, still New Zealand’s longest-serving Government. Our society was heralded throughout the world as a "working man’s paradise" and a "country without strikes". Legislation protecting workers’ rights and conditions were unmatched anywhere.

The union’s Labour Day was made a paid public holiday in 1899 to celebrate workers’ successes.

It’s quaint we built this country on the ethos that if one human employs another they "pay a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work". Now, a worker is not recognised as the producer of wealth for someone else. Instead, we are told they are a cost item to be reduced to enable the least consumer price for the maximum shareholder profit.

The new truth is that our present economic system is fairer because it represents the free market at its finest. We are assured legislation to protect workers and provide a living wage distorts the market and therefore causes job losses.

The people at the top who promote this view, of course, don’t practice it themselves.

This week, MPs are up for a pay rise. They have a committee of highly paid bureaucrats that consults other highly paid bureaucrats before they decide the new incomes for themselves, their colleagues, MPs and local-body politicians. Then they send the taxpayer the bill. Nice system if you are a beneficiary.

Imagine a trade union consulting its members and then deciding their members’ wages and then by law requiring the bosses to pay it.

Why not appoint a 12-person committee chosen from the electoral roll along the same lines as we appoint juries? After all, we trust them to send fellow citizens to jail. Let bureaucrats negotiate with this panel. Let them justify why our senior managers wouldn’t do their job if we didn’t pay more than half a million dollars a year.

What do backbench MPs do for their $200,000 salary packages, anyway? What qualifications and skills do they need? How do we measure their performance? What is the market rate when hundreds of applicants apply each election?

In the Liberal Government, backbench MPs got no salary. Yet they passed numerous laws to help workers. A century later, MPs are paid triple the average wage while they dismantle workers’ rights.

Something’s rotten when MPs and bureaucrats get a paid day off and can go out for a meal because workers are working. That’s not what our founders were fighting for.

(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.)

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