By Andrew Little
What great news that opposition parties had enough numbers in Parliament to get a couple of work rights laws to the next stage of consideration. Having an actual holiday when Waitangi day and Anzac day fall on a weekend (two days every seven years, give or take a leap year) and extending paid parental leave are about quality of life.
But seeing the government’s reaction to these proposed laws was educational – and disturbing. Frightening even. Man, were they angry.
But why? The Waitangi and Anzac law just fulfils the promise that the Holidays Act makes to have 11 public holidays a year. Hardly sky-falling stuff. And the parental leave law just sees us catching up with the rest of the developed world and recognises what we all know – the best start in life for a new born baby is to have as much time with Mum in the first years of life.
There’s a lot of popular support for these measures.
Which, presumably, explains why the government is so angry.
But it doesn’t look good for another round of employment law changes the government has drafted and is about to unleash on us.
The truth is this government has an amazingly out-dated view of work and employment. They don’t understand what modern, productive workplace relations look like; they are positively antediluvian.
Here’s what they want to do: For workers who have exercised their freedom of choice to belong to a union and who want to be part of a multi-site workplace agreement, their employer will have the unilateral right to not even start negotiations. Apparently, it’s about the employer’s right to choose.
Then, if you’re in an industry covered by the law that preserves minimum standards when your low-income job is contracted out to another company, you will lose that protection. Apparently, it’s about the employer’s right to choose.
And if you take low level industrial action, by making a protest to your employer, but not going on an all-out strike, so at least the boss’ business carries on and produces stuff, your employer will have the right to dock your pay and to unilaterally decide how much to deduct. Apparently, the employer’s got to have the right to choose this.
And what about this? A "starting out wage” which will allow an employer to pay a young worker less than the minimum wage.
You get the picture?
Here are the problems New Zealand has in our workplaces today: The quality of management is poor by international standards. New Zealand workers work, on average, some of the longest hours in the OECD. Our pay rates have been either static or falling in real terms for years. Income inequality is growing. Our numbers of apprentices and trainees are falling and we are more dependent on workers from overseas to fill the gaps. More workers are employed in part-time, casual or precarious work, like independent contracting. Exports are falling and we are dependent on borrowing to make ends meet as a country.
And did I mention health and safety? We have one of the worst rates of fatalities and serious accidents in the OECD. The challenge for New Zealand isn’t to beat up on workers yet again and try to squeeze out even more.
If we really want to lift value, we need a national workforce that is engaged. One that is valued and willing to work with employers to improve work processes, to come up with new ideas and create new value.
We need a culture of business that welcomes the challenge of new ideas and the pursuit of excellence. A management culture that embraces and empowers the front line, and gets out of the way. A management culture that respects working people regardless of their skills or position in the business.
Workers know how to make a workplace hum. When their health and safety is at risk, they are best placed to know what rules and practices are needed.
Let workers be actively involved in decisions. If they want to negotiate collectively, let them. A good business should see it as an opportunity to harness a united workforce.
And reward people properly.
Above all, let them know their employment isn’t at risk when they stand up for themselves and make their voice heard. The first thing that needs modernising about our workplaces is our attitudes. Our employment laws will reflect this. The next lot of law changes are low rent and fail the test.
Andrew Little is a Labour List MP and ACC spokesperson