Cottoning on to new ways of exploiting workers

Cotton On have hit the news for all the wrong reasons, with FIRST Union revealing that they’re pushing to remove guaranteed rest and meal breaks from workers in their distribution centre. FIRST General Secretary Robert Reid says:

“Breaks are crucial on industrial sites because they keep people safe. Worker fatigue is a risk on an industrial site like the Cotton On distribution centre. Removing breaks increases the risk to workers. After the government’s law changes removing tea and meal breaks is legal, but that does not make it ethical or sensible”

Labour’s labour spokesperson Iain Lees-Galloway demonstrates how this absolutely puts the lie to John Key’s promises about his unfair employment law changes:

“John Key told Kiwis who work for a living that their tea breaks would not be taken away from them by the law change. Yet at the very first opportunity, we see a large employer trying to claw back their staff’s right to a break.

“John Key also told us that the law change was about supporting small New Zealand businesses. Yet the first to take advantage of it is a wealthy Australian corporation.

“And John Key said that industries such as hospitality and air traffic control were the ones that needed the law change. Yet people working in retail with predicable customer demand are the first to be hit.

It really defies belief – at least, if you’re a person who understands that workers aren’t robots and that there’s some basic principles which are more important than profit – like making sure every worker goes home safe and well at the end of their shift, not worn out like a machine part.

But look at Cotton On’s own weaselly, misleading defence of themselves:

In response to recent comments made by First Union NZ, the Cotton On Group would like to make it clear that no changes have been made to our workers’ rights in any of our distribution centres. Negotiations are currently in place between the Cotton On Group and First Union with no agreement having yet been made.

The Cotton On Group is committed to having highly engaged staff and we have an effective two-way communication process in place, by way of implementation of our consultative committees which exist in each of our DCs globally, allowing each and every one of our people to have a voice.

To ensure we can maintain the integrity of the negotiation process we are committed to continue our conversations with First Union until an agreement is made. Our people and their working conditions have and always will be our top priority.

That’s literally the whole statement. In the first paragraph, they try to misdirect you about the facts of the matter: FIRST’s release is very clear that these are changes being negotiated (demanded) by Cotton On in bargaining. The second paragraph reads like it was written by the people behind the infamous Target union-busting video.

And the third paragraph is simply a lie. “Your people” (or as Cotton On and Target both call them, “our team members”) and their working conditions simply can’t be your top priority if you’re trying to take away the guaranteed breaks they already get under their agreement!

When the Employment Relations Amendment Bill was proposed, then-Minister of Labour Simon Bridges made a great hue and cry about “flexibility” and “fairness” in the workplace. Cotton On is showing us exactly what that means – and sadly, they won’t be the only ones.

What has Michael Woodhouse actually got right about employment relations?

With a caucus of 59, the National Party must have at least one person on the roster who understands basic employment law. The received wisdom is that National is the party of business, the party of employers, the party of job creation; there should be any number of MPs in their ranks who are qualified to talk about the state of work rights and wages.

Unfortunately, the person they’ve chosen to be the Minister of Workplace Relations and Safety, Michael Woodhouse, is not one of them.

In his latest outing, questioned by Campbell Live on the outright exploitation of workers on zero-hour contracts – in which workers are obliged to show up at a moment’s notice but have no minimum guaranteed hours for the week – literally everything he said is incorrect, misleading, or utterly – deliberately – ineffectual.

“I have worked on casual as a student and on my return from an OE – they’re an important part of the workplace”

Zero-hour contracts are not casual contracts. Under a casual contract, workers aren’t at risk of being fired if they turn down the hours offers. A worker who is expected to show up for regular hours – even if those hours are granted at the manager’s whim – isn’t a casual worker.

Either Woodhouse knows this, and his comment is a smokescreen, or he doesn’t, and shouldn’t have the job he has.

“It might be possible that Mohammad has Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ) opportunities available to him, but obviously everybody’s situation is different,” says Mr Woodhouse. “But it may be possible that he get support that way.”

Because Work and Income are just desperate to hand out cash to people who have jobs. They find it difficult enough to provide adequate assistance to people who literally can’t work, Minister.

But don’t you love the party of business and job creation demanding that the state effectively subsidise businesses to treat their workers poorly?

“We have a growing job market, and I’m sure people like Mohammad will be able to take advantage of that,”

The “growing job market” is a pivotal square on the National Party’s bingo board. We’re consistently promised more jobs, yet on the rare occasions they do appear they’re less skilled, less well-paid, and, well … probably on zero-hour contracts.

It’s also incredibly patronising, the employment law equivalent of:

 

As Iain Lees-Galloway put it, “Unemployment is rising and if these workers had other options, they would take them.” But we have to remember that this is a government of modern capitalism, where people are just resources. Or, as Rob Salmond put it,

In fact, is is another principle the right fervently believes in – that a company’s only job is to deliver value to shareholders – that justifies abuse of zero hours provisions. If you’re operating in a part of the labour market where nobody stays long anyway, and there’s a constant new supply of workers, it makes perfect (narrow) economic sense NOT to treat your workers as assets, but treat them as consumables instead.

So that’s the incorrect and misleading bits. Then there’s the ineffectual bits.

He says he encourages employers to rethink their rostering practices.

Mr Woodhouse says that there will be changes to employment law this year and is “quite happy to introduce legislation into the House in the middle of the year that would prohibit the worst excesses of the [zero-hours] practices that we find”

Oh gosh, prohibiting the worst excesses of a blatant exploitation of workers which leaves many families unable to cover their basic costs of living? How magnanimous.

And if the NZCU Baywide case teaches us anything, it’s that ~encouraging~ employers to ~may be a little less horrible~ is going to have little effect on those dedicated to grinding a worker’s face into the dirt or squeezing a few extra dollars out of the process.

But I’ve saved the best for last.

“Of course we can legislate for all the rules, but can’t legislate for good employer practice.”

I cede the floor to the most excellent Helen Kelly:

PS. 24,000 people have already signed Labour’s petition against zero-hour contracts. You should sign it too, if you want to tell Michael Woodhouse his waffley half-assed measures aren’t good enough.

Labour takes a stand against zero-hour contracts

Iain Lees-Galloway, Labour’s spokesperson on Labour Issues, has lodged a member’s bill which would ban the use of zero-hour contracts:

“Unlike casual agreements that provide flexibility for both employer and employee, zero-hour contracts require employees to be available for work at all times but place no expectations at all on employers to provide work.

“The Certainty at Work Bill requires employment agreements to include an indication of the hours an employee will have to work to complete the tasks expected of them. It maintains flexibility for employers while giving employees certainty about the amount of work they can expect to be offered.”

It’s an issue of basic fairness. When you don’t know how many hours you’re working from week to week, how are you supposed to budget? Plan ahead? Start saving the massive deposit you need before you can even imagine owning your own home?

Zero-hour contracts are most used in the food industry, as Unite national director Mike Treen notes:

“McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, Burger King, Wendy’s – all of the contracts have no minimum hours, and so people can be – and are – rostered anywhere from three to 40 hours a week, or sometimes 60 hours a week, and it depends a lot on how you get on with your manager.”

At ANZ – whose CEO got an 11% pay rise last year – workers went on strike in late 2014 over the company not only refusing to give its workers a decent raise, but also demanding they allow for zero-hour-style “flexibility” in their rosters.

Even John Roughan suggested in December that Andrew Little should “make it Labour’s mission to propose [a legislative solution to the zero-hour problem] without delay.”

So a ban on zero-hour contracts seems to be an idea whose time has most definitely come. But is the Government which took away a basic guaranteed level of rest breaks going to step up and do what’s right?