It’s past time for fair employment laws

After David Cunliffe’s state of the nation speech at the end of January, the spotlight was, appropriately, on the big policy announcement he made: the Best Start package for Kiwi kids.  (It wasn’t the friendliest spotlight, unfortunately.)

But there was a sentence at the end which hasn’t had a lot of pickup, and which could – I hope – point at a truly revolutionary policy on the horizon.

David said:

There will be opportunities in all our regions and decent work based on fair employment laws.

Fair employment laws.  We haven’t had a lot of that lately.  The ability of workers to organise and to bargain collectively – the best way in the world to raise wages and conditions – was shattered by the Employment Contracts Act, and while Labour’s Employment Relations Act repaired some of the damage, you can still see the effects today.

We’ve got a society where you have to be hush-hush about what you get paid because your co-workers are competition, not colleagues.

We’ve got a society where there’s a myth around individual agreements – they give you the chance to negotiate the best contract for you!  Maybe that works for the senior managers, or for people with really specialised skills, but for your average clerical worker or shop hand?  Here’s the agreement, take it or leave it – and oh yes, you’re on a 90-day trial.

And we’ve got a society where people don’t know their rights at work – or don’t have the power to stand up for those rights – and certainly don’t have the resources to hold bad employers to account.

National have introduced 90-day trials, youth rates, and now they have a bill going through the House which will take away the right to rest breaks, protection for vulnerable workers,  and weaken your ability to challenge unfair dismissals.

And let’s not forget Jami-Lee Ross’ private members bill – which was supported by National and Act at the first reading, but fortunately failed – which would have allowed employers to lock out workers and bring in temporary labour.  Effectively, starving the workers out until they accept whatever deal the employer deigned to offer.

National’s unfair employment laws benefit a few at the top – the bosses who are happy to turn a profit by grinding their workers down.  But that’s no basis for a happy, healthy society, and a strong, growing economy.

I think the argument’s simple enough: when people are earning enough to meet their needs, when they feel respected, when they’re getting ahead under their own steam, we all benefit.  Individuals benefit from less stressful lives.  Employers benefit from having a more productive team at work.  Our families and communities benefit.

A Labour-Green coalition in 2014 can build a completely new framework for industrial relations in New Zealand.  A framework where everyone gets treated with real fairness and dignity, and which recognises that there’s a basic power imbalance between workers and employers, especially in the hard financial times when unemployment is high.

And I can’t wait to hear more about how they’re going to make that happen.

What do you reckon?

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