Cautious winds of change?
Could the last month have marked a real sea change in industrial relations in New Zealand, last seen over a decade ago?
Recently there has been a number of reports about big brand retailers underpaying their staff over a number of years while expecting they attend pre-work meetings or clean up post-shift. Most galling is that these employees included those who can least afford it – some of the country’s most vulnerable workers, earning only the minimum wage yet demanded to give more of themselves without adequate recompense.
Meanwhile, the 2018 Budget was the first to be delivered by the Labour-led coalition Government with the new Finance Minister, Hon Grant
Robertson. Robertson declared an end to the “hands off approach to the economy that has left far too many New Zealanders behind,” and instead there was now a commitment to “protecting workers’ rights.” This would be delivered as part of the new Government’s economic vision of a New Zealand that was “sustainable, productive and inclusive.”
Included was new funding, announced by Minister of Workplace Relations and Safety, Hon Iain Lees-Galloway, of $8 million for additional labour inspectors in response to growing and more complex caseloads. There would also be new operating funding of $4.3 million to deal with “cost pressures” in frontline employment services including for the Employment Mediation Services.
In explaining the new funding, Lees-Galloway characterised the “vast majority of New Zealand employers (as doing) the right thing by their staff, but we need to protect workers from those businesses who do not.”
Another key part of this focus is the proposed amendments to the Employment Relations Act, currently going through the Parliamentary process. NZALPA, like the country’s other leading unions such as the Council of Trade Unions and E tū, have been vociferous in the need to return to fairness as the legislation signals, but expect the outcome will be bittersweet given the nature of the Coalition Government.
Despite NZALPA’s and the considerable lobbying of other unions, we expect there will be little changes to the current 90 day trial period proposal to still apply to smaller employers, leaving particularly a number of our General Aviation members still vulnerable to this provision due to Labour’s arrangement with New Zealand First.
Whatever the outcome on this, NZALPA will continue to highlight the unfairness of the ‘fire at will’ provision and advocate on behalf of our affected members case by case. The issue that surprised many New Zealanders however, is that of our regional Air Traffic Controllers’ lack of legal rights to meal and rest breaks during shifts that can last up to 9.5 hours. The fact that our highly-trained men and women whose roles are recognised as among the most stressful jobs in the world, needed to go to a Parliamentary Select Committee to plead for comfort breaks afforded to other New Zealand workers was met with disbelief in the media, with others describing it as a ‘Dickensian anomaly’.
The ATC delegation and supporters who presented to the Select Committee and waiting media felt they’d put their case strongly across and this was borne out in media coverage while we await the Committee’s recommendation report to the House later this month.
When leaving Parliament, several of our members reported a most sobering sight that also underscored the importance of this renewed emphasis on current reality for New Zealand’s workers. About 10 bus drivers followed NZALPA to present; mainly women and Pacific Islander men, still wearing their branded high visibility vests. They came to put forward their experience making a living in the increasingly vulnerable public transport sector. Already scheduled to present to the Committee several weeks prior, they still attended and spoke proudly despite their employer announcing the likelihood of 226 NZBus redundancies the night before.
The country’s workers have faced many challenges over the last decade which have included little movement in real wages, these ‘fire at will’ 90-day probation periods, and what is known as zero hour contracting. If this time does mark real progress for New Zealand employees, there are many who deserve any winds of change, quoting the Irish blessing, to be gently on their backs and for the warm sun to shine upon their faces as we go forward. NZALPA will be watching closely.