Climbing back to fairness

The last nine years saw PSA members consistently speaking out publicly about unfair changes to how we negotiate better pay and conditions.
Now, with a new government sworn in, what’s changed?


From the bad…

“Bad employers will be empowered by this law while our most vulnerable workers will be hurt.”

This quote, from PSA national secretary Erin Polaczuk, summed up the attitude of more than 8000 PSA members who submitted against the former National Government’s changes to employment law in 2014.

PSA members were as vocal as we’ve ever been, with 50 presenting in person to MPs to tell them why the proposed laws would hurt working people. We made a powerful stand, but the former Government didn’t listen.

Since then, we’ve seen bad employers use these laws to hurt unionised workers – our friends in the Meat Workers Union have perhaps been the hardest hit. They've faced lengthy lockouts and workers disciplined for taking even the simplest action like wearing union t-shirts.

The negative effects of the National Party’s changes to employment law weren’t an unforeseen accident – union members from all over the country said this would happen, and we were proven right.

To the good…

“The industrial changes announced today start the process of returning to a better quality of life for us all.”

The election of the Labour – NZ First – Green Party Government brought hope for positive change, and as the above quote from Richard Wagstaff, president of the Council of Trade Unions, illustrates, the early signs have been good.

In late January, Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Hon Iain Lees-Galloway introduced a new law that would get rid of some of the worst changes brought in by the Key/English Government.

Amongst the changes:

  • All collective agreements will be required to contain pay rates, which means pay will have to be negotiated, rather than dictated by bosses;
  • Employers won’t be able to walk away from collective bargaining, which means they will be obliged to try to find a constructive solution to disagreement;
  • Employers also will be forced to discuss a multi-employer collective agreement if their workers want one, rather than simply being able to say no from the start;
  • Every worker will regain the entitlement to rest and meal breaks, and bosses will no longer be able to force employees to work non-stop without time to refresh;
  • New workers in workplaces with collective agreements will automatically go onto them, and have 30 days to decide whether or not they will join the union;
  • Those same new workers will also be given information about how to join the union;
  • When unjustifiably dismissed, workers will once again be able to request a return to their role as the first remedy to the issue, rather than simply seeking a payment in lieu of this;
  • Some groups of workers, such as cleaners, who predominantly work for contract agencies, will regain the right to transfer to a new employer when their boss loses a contract, on the same terms and conditions they already have;
  • Lastly, employers will no longer be able to deduct wages from

    workers who take low-level industrial action (such as refusing to wear uniform, or refusing to work overtime).

The Labour – NZ First coalition agreement also contained a commitment to increasing the minimum wage to $20 per hour by 2021, with a 75-cent increase coming on April 1 this year. This is a good start, but will see the minimum wage continue to lag well behind the Living Wage (currently $20.20 per hour).

Lees-Galloway has made clear that this first round of employment law changes will not be all – it is simply getting rid of some of the worst changes made by the last Government, and there are more proactive changes by the new Government still to come.

Though there’s still some ugly…

Just because we have a Government more inclined to listen to what workers want, it doesn’t mean we can be complacent. Already, we’ve seen a weak response to one vital change that particularly hurts young and migrant workers.

The 90-day fire at will law was introduced under the last Government, and remains popular with National supporters despite research showing it doesn’t work for what was proclaimed to be its main purpose: making it easier for young people, and other people disadvantaged in the hunt for jobs, to find meaningful work.

The new Government has decided to partially retain this policy, keeping 90-day “trial periods” for workplaces with fewer than 20 employees. Lees-Galloway admitted in his speech to Parliament about his proposed changes that:

“They can lead to uncertainty and anxiety for new employees. When employers do dismiss people on trial periods, this may cause significant distress, exacerbated when workers are not provided reasons and where they believe the dismissal is unfair.

The lack of a process for workers to challenge the dismissal may worsen their experience. It may mean that some employees face difficulty in finding subsequent employment if they are dismissed under a trial position without knowing the reason”

Given all these reasons, we have to wonder what possible justification the Government has for keeping these unfair trial periods for anyone. PSA members, as well as our friends in other unions, will be asking the Education and Workforce Committee to recommend that Parliament changes this before passing the new law.

Another bad change made by the previous Government was the introduction of youth rates – a lower minimum wage for young people, even if they’re doing the exact same job. The new Government have committed to discussing this in Cabinet later in 2018, but they have not made a firm commitment to get rid of them since the election.

Union members will have to be vocal about this. The principle of equal pay for equal work is at the heart of who we are, and one we cannot compromise on.

What do we want? Fair Pay Agreements! When do we want them? Sometime soon, I guess

The centrepiece of Labour’s plans for employment law are Fair Pay Agreements. There’s no set time for the legislation for these to be made public, but work on the policy is ongoing, as are discussions with unions and employer groups.

A Fair Pay Agreement will be a set of minimum standards in pay and conditions in an industry. The idea behind them is that, at the moment, there is little incentive for many sectors, particularly when unions aren’t present, to offer anything more than the minimum wage.

With unions only present in a small number of private sector employers, it makes it easy for private sector bosses in large industries like retail and hospitality to force wages down and hard for workers to genuinely negotiate better pay for themselves.

Lees-Galloway told the NZ Herald that the changing nature of work means the way we set wages and conditions needed to change, saying “we can pretend it’s not happening, or we can start making adjustments now that are good for workers, but also support changes that are good for business.”

Exactly how Fair Pay Agreements will be negotiated, the role of unions and their members, and what scope the agreements will have in terms of what they can include, is still up for debate. And while most PSA members won’t be hugely impacted by them – as we have strong rates of unionisation in most areas we organise – these agreements will have positive impacts on our friends and whānau, and in particular the people we love who work in areas without a strong union.

FEATURE Submission photo

An opportunity to be heard

This Government won’t do everything right. The PSA is politically non-partisan, meaning we don’t support any one political party. Instead, we advocate for policy that benefits our members, and all of New Zealand.

Accordingly, we need to be prepared to criticise the Government when it gets things wrong, as we always have done. When they get things right, we’ll be equally vocal in our support.

What is clear already, however, is that the new Government is more prepared to listen to us and to respond to our concerns, than the previous one was. This gives us an opportunity, and one we would be foolish not to take advantage of.

The things we care about as a union: fair pay and conditions, quality public and community services, and a strong sense of community solidarity and collective action, are good not just for us, but for the whole country. We owe it to each other, to our whānau, and to the generations to come to give it our best shot.

Jacinda Ardern’s slogan for the election campaign was Let’s Do This. Now the campaign is done. What happens next is up to us.