NZCTU President Speech to Labour Party Conference

Speech – NZCTU

E ng mana, e ng reo, e ng krangaranga maha o ng mata waka, me ng momo tngata katoa o te hui nei. Tn koutou katoa.
2nd November 2013

Helen Kelly NZCTU President Speech to Labour Party Conference

E ngā mana, e ngā reo, e ngā kārangaranga maha o ngā mata waka, me ngā momo tāngata katoa o te hui nei. Tēnā koutou katoa.

It is great to be back here at another Labour Party conference and at a time where there is a real sense, not only that we will get a change of government next year, but that the new Government can be one that puts real clothes on the economic and social emperor and moves the country to the place where it should be.

This really is a policy and planning conference for the Party and I want to use the time I have to talk about what the Union Movement sees as the challenges for the future for working people in this country.

First let’s have a look at the problem. I hope you have seen the campaigns we have been running over the last year and in particular the campaign on Forestry Safety, the Living Wage Campaign, the Fairness at work campaign and the Campaign on insecure work.

They are all interconnected and are reflective of a country where work, for growing numbers of workers, now takes such an exploitative form, it is playing a negative role in the economic and social development of our community.

Let’s take the example of the last forestry worker killed in this country less than four months ago and the 8th death this year alone in this industry not counting those killed driving logging trucks. Charles Finlay got home at 6pm the night before he was killed, and was up again the next morning at 3am to meet his normal start time of 4am. Charles was dead by 5.30am in the middle of the winter, in the middle of the country, in the middle of the night and on a dark unlit site. He regularly worked between 55 and 60 hours in a 5 day week and up to 64 hours when he worked a Saturday. Some days he also drove more than an hour each way.

Charles was on $16 an hour after 27 years in the bush. His employer was a contractor to Hancocks Forests – the biggest forest owner in New Zealand. The 300 Contractors in the industry are being squeezed by the 9 big forest owners including being allocated work too late to make a safety plan and facing increasing productivity pressures requirements and reduced payments with no security of provision of work to allow them to invest in machinery etc.

Charles and his family are the victims of a deregulated labour market. Charles’ employment was insecure – he was not paid in bad weather, he was employed in an insecure supply chain arrangement. He did not earn a living wage, forcing him to work unacceptably long hours in a country with no maximum hours of work, and now this all means he leaves behind 7 year old beautiful twin girls and a lovely 21 year old son and a widow now receiving ACC of 80% of $16 for the years to come to support them all.

He was the victim of poor health and safety in an industry that is dangerous by design and which is designed in a manner that leaves its workforce scared of raising concerns, unorganised in health and safety, and working in an economic model predicated on being dangerous. Workers like Charles are exhausted. Their families talk of them coming home at night and falling into bed without dinner. Of constant conversations of corner cutting and productivity pressure and of numerous near misses where tired workers make mistakes that are the difference between coming home or not.

The changes to employment law now going through Parliament, would even remove his right to a tea break and are being promoted by the Minister of Labour, Simon Bridges, as necessary to rebalance the power between workers like Charles and his employer because according to the Minister, the current law apparently overly favours workers.

What happened to Charles is a problem the whole country has to think about. He had 1400 mourners at his tangi. You can feel the aching in a community like Tokoroa – Charles is the second Tokoroa man killed in the last two years in Forestry and 1 of 5 Forestry deaths in the Bay of Plenty in the last two years. These families – when you first meet them show you photos of their men and sons, they need you to understand that they were loved and good people, working hard, skilled, dedicated – they do this in the context of the forestry sector where the men are not respected; where their contribution to this huge industry is exploited. Our campaign for forestry safety is making big inroads. The Forest Owners are now saying they will hold an inquiry and we have been consulted on the terms of reference and expect to nominate someone for the Review Panel. Workers are joining the union and many families are now involved in the campaign. They are talking to each other and to the union and strategising to make their work safer.

But the long term solutions to decent work for forestry workers and others lies in a dual approach – an organising solution but also a political one. No matter how organised they get, the current law won’t resolve these employment issues for forestry workers who have not had a collective agreement covering their terms and conditions since they had an award. They have not had a functioning structure for union membership since the New Zealand Forest Service was corporatised in 1987 and then the forests privatised over the following years. An industrial relations system that provides real employment rights only to a small minority of workers is not a fair system and needs to be changed. We want an industrial relations system that is within a cohesive vision regarding the role of work in a healthy, robust and resilient society. While the current changes proposed by Government will have very serious consequences for many NZ workers who do collectively negotiate , the reality is that those rights have long been denied workers like Charles who worked for most of his shortened working life in a situation that was able to exploit him at will, in every such way including in the end costing his life.

We want to work with the NZLP on what this means for Government and for unions . We want a different form of this historic relationship between our two movements based on our shared outlook of sustainable development and a fair society, and on agreed expectations of what good modern Government looks like and what it does, and what a modern union movement looks like and what it does.

And this is a relevant discussion at this time on the anniversary of the Great Strike of 1913. It really was the beginning of the development of the dual political/industrial wings of the Labour movement and the vision of how this relationship should look 100 years on is a very relevant discussion.

It might be true to say that more recently the relationship has been transactional rather than deliberative, depicted by both parties and in the media within the narrative of winning and losing, dominance, reliance and patronage, rather than within a common vision with intersecting values driving policies consistent with achieving those values and visions to the benefit of those that live and work in the country. In this regard we have, to some extent, failed to play to our strengths, to build the logical mutually reinforcing set of interests which are firmly based within our joint constituency and mandate.

At the CTU conference this year we talked about our union change programme and our resolve to put more investment into the relationship workers have with the union movement. In a sense this very much aligns with the reforms in the Party. It is easy for us to focus on the relationship workers have with their employer in our work, but the relationship between workers and the movement is what builds our legitimacy and is the most important of the relationships. The campaigns we are prioritising are examples of this work.

The Forestry, Living Wage and Insecure work campaigns highlight cross-cutting issues and weaknesses in the current system and they allow communities to easily connect up to them and to participate in them on the basis of their own communities priorities. They are part of rebuilding democratic participation in the political debate in this country. This is an area of policy debate which needs more focus in our view – what is the role of Government in supporting communities to build a ‘peoples voice’ to counter and fight back against the huge increase in corporate PR specialists and the slow collapse of the mainstream media including its resource base to genuinely examine and inform?

Through our campaigns, new groups of workers are connecting up, and issues that strongly resonate with them are being discussed. They are also seeing the Labour Party in Parliament complementing the work they are doing and this is being noticed and talked about. While these campaigns have a vision attached to them, they do not come with a transactional list of demands. They demand holistic solutions to have decent work, decent incomes, a political voice and decent lives.

While the insecure work campaign was only launched last month, it is an issue of broad concern and will take hold as a core issue in the coming year. Our report shows that at least 30% – over 635,000 people – and perhaps as much as 50% of New Zealand’s workers are in insecure work. We know that 95,000 workers have no usual work time, 192,000 are temporary workers, 61,000 workers have no written employment agreement, 573,000 workers earn less than the Living Wage and almost 570,000 workers are in one of the five sectors with the worst workplace health and safety problems. We all want a change to the role of work in wellbeing in this country. Both branches of the Labour movement want this. Not to scratch each other’s backs, but grounded in a fundamental understanding of how good that will be for the people that live here, and that achieving it is a political choice which if done well will also strengthen our economy as a whole. In order to build a broad understanding and consensus on these policies we need to continue examining what democratic renewal means between our two movements. We are certainly prepared to examine what this means for the union movement including its accessibility, inclusion and responsiveness to the people we seek to provide a voice for.

I will come back to this but I must unfortunately divert to the current changes being pushed through the Parliament to change employment law.

This Government as you know is out of touch with working people and are embarking yet again on more employment law cuts – I want to focus on the 5 biggies.

The first is the removal of the right to a tea and lunch break – workers that don’t have this guaranteed in their collective will not have an entitlement anymore.

The second is the removal of the protection from cleaning and catering staff of their security of employment when the contractor they work for is replaced – currently any new contractor is required to transfer the current workers over – but it is proposed that if the new contractor employs fewer than 20 staff they can dump them. We had a hospital cleaner talk about this from my hospital, in Wellington, at one of our rallies – about the hardship of being contracted anyway but then of knowing that at any minute you can be tossed out if the contractor changes. She has cleaned the hospital for over 20 years and is very proud of her work. She has had barely a day off, strict standards of work to help stop infections etc. The message to her from this law change is that all that commitment is it counts for nothing! If we can get someone cheaper then we will. She is being made a fool of for her commitment and the message she will receive from this Government is that her dedication is worthless to them.

Three core changes to collective bargaining will reduce wages – the Governments own papers say they will. Firstly employers will no longer have to agree a collective agreement in bargaining –the whole point of collective bargaining – the duty to walk out of the room with the collective in place is, being removed, leaving the employer free to reject collectives in favour of individual agreements as a legitimate lawful preference. New workers will not have to be offered the collective for the first 30 days of employment as per the current law, allowing employers to unilaterally offer reduced or changed terms to new workers to undermine the collective agreement. And the third change gives the employer a free run to destroy the bargaining unit in a workplace. If the employer refuses to settle a collective, as they will be able to do, they can seek an order from the court that the bargaining is finished. If this is granted, the collective in place will come to an end putting all workers instantly on individual agreements. The current one year protection of collectives agreements after expiry, provided to allow time for renegotiation, will be removed if the court orders the bargaining over. The Government is then granting a 60 day period to employers where all union bargaining rights will be removed – the right to bargain and the right to strike – leaving the employer free to offer individuals agreements to workers to undermine the collective.

And you have to ask given the crisis of wages in this country – who would do this? I have been travelling the country for weeks to meet in workplaces with union and non-union members to discuss these changes. Workers have been shocked at what is proposed and they get what it all means!!

Workers are shocked but they are also activated! We have set up local campaign hubs for them to plan their activities – they are deciding what will work – they are leafleting, marching in a mask parade, handing out cups of tea in the square, visiting Government MPs (some for the first time) and organising rallies. We have momentum and the community are concerned – they are looking, asking and objecting to these changes. This is a strong sign and we will keep visiting these workplaces!

Ending this year and continuing next year we have a robust campaign plan in place to maintain the momentum. This includes supporting workers who forced to protect their collectives under this new law, rallying again in April when it is proposed the law come into effect, and continuing the local activism to get workers on the roll and out to support the election – not just out to vote – but to make wages and work a key election issue.

The first question from workers always when I set out these changes is why? Why would the Government do this to us – now. My view is because they are living in the past and fear the future – they want us to live in fear too rather than hope – fear of losing a job, fear of unemployment, fear to stop us wanting a better New Zealand or worse still, demanding one. They are trying to create a collapse in confidence of workers that stops us defending ourselves and makes us apologetic for wanting rights and decent pay. Only collectively can workers and Labour build a barrier to that so that our vision becomes widely understood as the legitimate position and as achievable, beneficial and desirable.

We have four goals for our work rights campaign – the first is to try to stop the law. We haven’t ruled out winning changes – we have heard from workers, visiting Tory MPs, that some are talking about changes – but fiddling won’t fix it and unless they concede the attacks on the basic framework for bargaining, we will continue to campaign. There is no policy or moral basis for this attack on workers’ rights.

The second goal is to drive up our vision for an alternative law (I will come back to this), the third is to ensure communities understand this is a political decision being made by the Government against their interests and the interests of their families– there is a choice and the Government has made this one. The fourth goal is to run this campaign up to the election next year and to make sure workers understand that at the election they also have a political choice and they should exercise it to vote for political parties that respect the contribution they make to the NZ economy and who have solutions in their policy that will genuinely deliver to them useable, robust and sustainable employment laws that secure their economic futures and those of their families.

I have talked to you before about the model employment law we are promoting and it was exciting to hear David promote this model in his leadership speeches. It is of course already Labour Party Policy. An industrial law that ensures the rights of collective bargaining and to associate with unions is easily accessible to any worker that seeks it, is essential to getting a fairer system of distribution. You know from 1989 to 2012 in NZ, private sector productivity increased by 50 percent but wages only by 16 percent after inflation. Wages and salaries make up almost three-quarters of the incomes of households with working age members and so are critically important. From 1988 to 2010, the half of New Zealand households on the lowest incomes had no increase in income at all after inflation despite the economy growing by one-third per New Zealander during the same time.

The system doesn’t work and we need to remember the current system was actually our policy – a policy of bargaining in good faith with duties to conclude and a system of union rights which allow fee deductions, paid union meetings etc etc. And it doesn’t work. Basically this is the international experience. Where bargaining is substantively limited to an enterprise level, any worker in an enterprise that has insufficient strength to rebalance bargaining power, including where joining a union is a risk rather than a right, is denied collective bargaining and short of the Minimum Wage increases is likely to get minimal or no pay increases at all – year after year, and the facts show this to be the case here. In our proposal the industrial law would mean that standards negotiated within an industry through enterprise collective bargaining would be extended to industrial level collective agreements to cover all workers in that industry when a threshold is crossed.

So for example, in aged care, where, through collective bargaining, a certain percentage of aged care workers are covered by collective agreements, the standards from those agreements would be extended to all workers in the aged care sector meaning all workers in aged care would have access to collective bargaining in an accessible way based on agreements within that industry.

We see this policy as essential to the wages issue in New Zealand. Access to collective negotiations can’t be determined by the fate of where you get a job and whether or not the place has sufficient strength to negotiate a collective agreement. For those employers already negotiating, this policy will benefit them – they do have collectives and these agreements will be used to set the standards – and other employers in their industry will be required to also raise standards of employment in competing businesses. For workers, it replicates the best of international systems – retaining a “market testing” mechanism and requiring democratic organising within unions, but providing a proper channel to the two core international rights of collective bargaining and the right to freely join a union if they want to.

The reality is that inequality and low wages will not be addressed without a sound wage distribution mechanism. We now see 245,000 people in the country who are jobless and we have a Government that is sitting back and waiting for the recovery to create new jobs. It has no vision for this to happen or that if it does the jobs created will be decent ones. We know that without a plan for decent jobs, work will likely be grim under current policies if it happens at all. We want to see policies that back NZ business through things like support for manufacturing, Government procurement that supports NZ firms, and an industry training system that works. A high road strategy. We want a wages policy that combines a decent minimum wage, supports the implementation of the living wage, promotes collective bargaining and equal pay and that ensures improvements in productivity are properly shared with workers.

You are also debating the TPPA at this conference. At our conference we hardened our stance to unequivocally oppose it. Many of you are aware that it is likely to force up medicine prices, give transnational corporations a much greater influence over our governments’ decisions by including a right for these companies to sue our Government outside our national court system, and can be used to stop the implementation of polices that Governments have been elected to implement. It for example, will get in the way of using government procurement for helping local industry, spreading the Living Wage and raising health and safety standards, and much more. In short we oppose it because it is a model that goes in a directly opposite direction from what I have been describing as what New Zealand needs. That neoliberal model has been tried and failed in New Zealand and is a relic of pre-global financial crisis thinking.

We all understand that all things being equal, if you can put $1 in and get $1.15 out when another option exists to put $1 in and get out $1.25 you will take the $1.25 option. But the understanding of the comparative advantages of both the 15 cents and 25 cents is often simplistic. If the 25 cents ends with a poisoning of the water supply (as the residents of Raetahi and Ashburton have suffered recently), or if it is based on a model where 87 workers are seriously harmed each year and 8 killed (as in forestry this year already), then it is a false gain. If the 25 cents doesn’t cause this type of harm but is captured entirely by a single party leaving workers unable to pay their power bill or buy good food for their kids, then it is a false social equation and the 15 cents option may actually represent more value on the whole.

It is our view we need a new vision that Kiwis can aspire to. It’s not a cut it, drill it, pollute it, close it and impoverish it vision – it’s not one where most Kiwis are seen as the problem with a small rich group seen as the solution. But one that recognises the best of human nature and the concept that our individual happiness is dependent on each other’s rights and needs as much as our own. It is the only sustainable model for long term well-being and it is the point that differentiates the labour movement in both its wings from the Parties that form the current Government.


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