Insecure work hurts

Staff inside the public sector say use of temporary and fixed term contracts is increasing as a way of staying under the public service staffing cap and the resulting job insecurity is causing distress.

One PSA member who didn’t want to be named “because it’s not safe to talk about this openly” has been on temporary contracts for the past three years.

In a 2013 report by the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, Under Pressure, it was found that at least 30% of New Zealand workers were in insecure work.

“Whether we call it casualisation, precarious work, temporary, or non-standard work - it means that workers have worse conditions, less security, less say and are more vulnerable,” the report stated.
“That may suit the boss - but it is unfair and does not work for workers.”

The worker Working Life talked to, who has previously been on an events-based contract while working at Parliament, and temporary and permanent contracts elsewhere in the public sector, says keeping under the public sector cap has been a “really big battle”.

When National came into government in 2008 they immediately capped the overall size of full time public sector positions. During the 2011 election year they campaigned on further reducing the cap and in 2012 did so, making the cap 36,475 full-time equivalent staff positions.

“I was told, when I was first brought on, that they couldn’t bring anyone permanent into the role as they didn’t have any more permanent positions available to them because of the cap.

“The way they get around it is by having contractors because it doesn’t show up on the books - if you’ve got 100 full time staff and 100 contractors, they’re completely different budgets and responsibilities and risks.”

While her new role means she earns less than she was paid on her temporary contract, she says the job security and benefits are worth it.

“It was the not knowing if you’re going to have a job at the end of the week if someone doesn’t like you, or the project gets pulled or they have to tighten belts with costs. Even though you might have a contract for another three months it can still be ended at any stage.”

Only two days into a former temporary contract she had to have surgery and was off work for a week with no income.

“I was completely broke at the time so I was begging my doctor to let me go back to work and they were like ‘no, it’s actually a matter of life and death, if you go back to work now you could actually split your internal stitches and die’.

“But at the same time, I needed that money, I needed to pay rent. When you’re permanent you get all that leeway and benefits.”

The precarious nature of the events-based contracts that Parliament support staff are on is also damaging, she says.

An MP can fire their support staff for any reason “if they don’t like the colour of your dress, you made them coffee that wasn’t strong enough”, she says. While employees get their four weeks paid out there is no opportunity to take a grievance.

“It’s really precarious, especially staff who are working with MPs one-on-one, you have to keep that relationship really tight, you can’t really call them out on stuff like ‘I don’t think this is appropriate use of funds’, you might have an ethical worry about something but you don’t speak up - it’s your job on the line, every day.

“You don’t use a terse tone, you don’t send an email to them checking all kinds of things. You can imagine some of the people who are MPs - the attitudes, the big personalities and all that - so I know quite a few people who have been in that situation of a breakdown in relationship and how quick they can get out. It’s really scary.” 

By Jess McAllen