New Zealand Labour Letter – June 2013, Published By AIL NZ as a service to the labour movement
National Labour News
Fierce opposition intensified across the nation to the Employment Relations Amendment bill, which passed its first reading in parliament on June 5. National government’s proposed changes to employment law are opposed by unions, the Labour Party, the Greens and NZ First. Despite the opposition, the bill passed by 61-58 and was sent to a select committee for public submissions. Among the most controversial changes is the lifting of the obligation on employers to conclude collective bargaining. Under the bill, employers can opt out if they consider negotiations are taking too long and aren’t getting anywhere. Another clause removes guaranteed meal and rest breaks, instead allowing flexible working arrangements to be negotiated on an individual basis. Unions also have raised the concern that the measure violates New Zealand’s obligations under ILO Convention 98 on the right to organise and collective bargaining.
National government’s proposed changes to the Employment Relations Act sparked heated response from New Zealand’s unions. A sample of comments from union leaders indicated the depth of opposition. The Service and Food Workers Union said the changes will further weaken the ability of workers to maintain their wage rates and working conditions. “The changes are a brutal reminder that the Government wants to entrench a low-wage regime in this country and make life for low-income working families even more insecure,” said SFWU spokesperson, Jill Ovens. The Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union warned the measure means a low wage future for Kiwi workers. “We will campaign to stop these changes and build support for fairer employment laws that provide every worker with a safe workplace, a living wage and a real say at work,” said EPMU director of organising Rachel Mackintosh.
Unite union, which organises fast food and other previously unorganised sectors, launched a vigorous industrial campaign against McDonald’s with the first McDonald’s strike ever in Wellington on May 22. Five of seven workers on the morning shift at Wellington came off the job and, according to media reports, most customers respected the picket line. Workers were joined by community groups and trade unionists from FIRST Union, the Postal Workers Union of Aotearoa, the NZ Nurses Organisation and the New Zealand Tertiary Education Union. The union’s SupersizeMyPay.com campaign in 2005 achieved collective contracts in most of the major fast food chains: McDonalds’, Burger King (Hungry Jacks in Australia) and Restaurant Brands (KFC, Carls Jr, Starbucks, Pizza Hutt). The key demands today are focused around winning a NZ$15 starting wage, an end to casualised hours, a fair and transparent roster system and a number of union-only benefits, most of which have already been won by KFC Unite members.
National, Economic & Political Events
Charter schools are “part of the problem, not part of the solution,” stated more than 50 representatives recently of groups the government claims charter schools will help. In a letter to Education Minister Hekia Parata, the groups expressed “our deep concern that this initiative is a serious wrong turn for education.” Signatories include spokespeople for the Maori and Pasifika communities, IHC, Every Child Counts and the Child Poverty Action Group, as well as academics, principals, teachers, psychiatrists and members of parliament. Group spokesperson Waikato University Professor of Maori Education Russell Bishop said the government’s charter school plans is “a serious wrong turn for education” that exploited vulnerable children. “Charter schools are not the solution for New Zealand’s most vulnerable learners. Overseas, charter schools have not raised achievement for children who need it the most,” the groups said in the letter.
A 2012 Expert Advisory Group on Solutions to Child Poverty claimed 270,000 New Zealand children are living in poverty, including 100,000 in working families. But a plan by the National government for a five-year $9.5 million programme to ensure every school that needs to can provide breakfast for its students has been decried as too little. Critics say child poverty drains the nation’s economy of billions each year. EAG estimated child poverty costs $6 to $8 billion a year, about $1,800 per man, woman and child. The most commonly used thresholds of poverty are 50 per cent and 60 per cent of median household income after housing costs. In 2012 median weekly household income in New Zealand was $560 and median working income was $800. With average rents at $300, poverty in New Zealand means having $130 to $250 per week to spend on utilities, food, clothes and other expenses. Food in schools was the 63rd of 78 recommendations by EAG to the government to address child poverty.
More than 1,000 workers from Sabrina (Cambodia) Garment Manufacturing factory protested June 6 to demand the release of eight union members arrested on the previous Monday. The representatives of the Free Trade Union (FTU) were charged were with intentional violence and intentional property damage. Strikers at the plant recently engaged in factory protests during which 23 people, including nine police officers were injured in clashes that occurred. The plant is a Nike supplier. Workers said they would continue to protest until the FTU representatives and workers were released. Ny Dyna, wife of a detained FTU representative, said she had not been allowed to see her husband. “They did not allow even the food I brought to get to him. It was also denied,” she said.
Turkey’s Public Workers Unions Confederation (KESK) launched a 2-day strike on June 4 in support of protesters demonstrating for weeks against the Islamist government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AK Party. The confederation represents 11 unions with 240,000 members. “The state terror implemented against mass protests across the country … has shown once again the enmity to democracy of the AKP government, said KESK in a statement. Protests rocked the country in early June with rallies, demonstrations and marches. Erdogan dismissed the protestors as “extremists.” Police clashed with protesters with thousands injured or detained, and three people dead, including a police officer. The protests were sparked over redevelopment in Istanbul’s Gezi Park which revealed widespread dissatisfaction with the government’s repressive policies.
Anti-austerity groups from across Europe gathered in Athens June 6-7 for a two-day summit where they called for radical changes in policies from western governments. Organisers said the event is an act of solidarity with Greek social movements in their struggle against austerity. During the summit, Greek health workers led a protest in front of parliament over government spending cuts which they say have caused the collapse of the nation’s health care system. They were joined by health care workers from France, Belgium and Portugal. Workers said wage and staff cuts have increased their work load and made their jobs impossible. The summit forum called for fiscal pacts imposed on indebted countries to be cancelled, for a moratorium on debt repayments, higher taxes on the rich and more scrutiny of offshore accounts. The meeting took place after the release of an internal International Monetary Fund report which faulted the drastic austerity measures imposed on Greece, and said debt should have been restructured in 2010.
Explosions and fire tore through parts of a poultry processing plant in northeast China, killing 119 people and injuring 54. More than 300 workers were inside the plant operated by the Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry Company. According to news reports, fire doors were locked to prevent workers from walking around and disrupting production. Some employees said that as 70 per cent of the workers were women, the doors were locked to prevent them from going to the toilet too often. Panicked workers were forced to escape down a narrow hall to a side door exit. Authorities said the explosion was caused by leakage in tanks of ammonia, which is used in the poultry industry as a coolant. China’s poultry industry is notorious for unsafe working conditions, with air and noise pollution, exposure to high temperatures, unpleasant smells, poultry blood, feces, and disease. Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry, founded in 2009, has 1,200 employees and an annual output amounting to 67,000 tons of chicken products.
Bangladeshi garment workers have conducted on-going protests and strikes that have reduced garment production in Ashulia by 20 per cent since the Rana Plaza catastrophe. The Ashulia plants account for 30 per cent of Bangladesh’s total garment exports. Police on June 3 used rubber bullets and batons against some 3,000 garment workers of Dynasty BD Limited in Ashulia and Gazipur industrial belts, on the outskirts of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, during a protest after they walked out. The workers demanded payment of overdue wages, other financial benefits and immediate withdrawal of the cases filed against workers as a result of a previous industrial action. According to news reports, at least 50 workers were injured. Dynasty Group suspended production at the plants for several days as a result of the labour unrest. On April 24, Rana Plaza, an eight-story commercial building in the Greater Dhaka area, collapsed killing nearly 1,127 garment workers, considered to be the deadliest garment factory accident in history.
Regional and Local Union News
Corrections Association New Zealand president Beven Hanlon urged greater safety measures for prison officers after 29 high-security inmates rampaged through two cell blocks at Spring Hill prison in Waikato for more than eight hours on Saturday, June 1. He called the incident the worst prison riot in 15 years. Three guards were left with broken bones. “We’re lucky that nobody was killed,” he said. An out-of-control fire forced staff to free prisoners locked in cells and get the rioting under control first, Hanlon said. “There were flames everywhere, screams and yells, and the staff went in and put those prisoners down very quickly.” Hanlon also praised the work of officers who kept other prisoners under control, after they tried smashing their way out of their cells. He said the union is making suggestions to Corrections in terms of officer safety around prisoner placement, gang management and how staff is equipped.
Drivers at Contact Energy’s Rockgas operations in Auckland started an eight-week strike June 4 over wages and working conditions. The workers are members of FIRST Union which has been bargaining since February with Rockgas. FIRST Union organiser Jared Abbott said the company was unwilling to move on lifting its wages to better reflect what others in the industry were paying. “The drivers are seeking pay rates that are closer to what Rockgas’ competitors in the industry pay, and safer terms and conditions” Abbott said in a union statement. “Despite already being below industry standards, bargaining broke down after Rockgas made an offer that was lower than what they currently pay new employees.”
Security screening staff at Perth Airport’s Qantas terminal went on strike June 4 for 48 hours after their employer, MSS Security refused a union wage claim. The workers’ union United Voice and MSS Security have been trying to negotiate a new agreement for six months. Both sides recently appeared before the Fair Work Commission with no resolution. The workers say they have been offered lower wages than their Melbourne counterparts. According to United Voice assistant secretary Pat O’Donnell, the workers rejected the company’s offer of a 3.2 per cent wage increase each year for four years. The union has called for a pay increase of 8 per cent, 6 per cent and 6 per cent a year over 3 years, plus increases in shift allowances and weekend penalties, which MSS Security refused.