Tea breaks are creeping communism

A classic National Party campaign poster did the rounds on Twitter following Farrar’s latest round of “Labour is now the extreme left” scaremongering.

1951 national poster communism

What’s funny is how little the right’s tactics have changed in 60 years. Even today, you get employers telling their workers that they’re very concerned that the unions they belong to are greedy leviathans run from shadowy smoke-filled rooms by men with Stalinist moustaches. The rhetoric is still about scary unions forcing innocent businesses to close their doors as the hardworking General Manager Corporate Affairs weeps into his tie.

The fairly simple logic – that it doesn’t really benefit unions if their members go out of work – is usually lost on people like Farrar. Many unions have in fact been key parts of helping businesses to lift productivity and innovate and create even more jobs.

Of course workers, and the unions who represent them, get a little stroppy when employers do things like try to take away guaranteed tea breaks and leak workers’ personal information to hate-bloggers like Cameron Slater, but that’s hardly socialism gone mad. That’s recognising basic concepts like fairness, safety, and integrity.

And those things are pretty scary, if you think the only important thing in the world is short-term profit.

 

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.

Repost: Employment law: it’s toasted

In an early episode of Mad Men, when the company’s going for the Lucky Strike account, sleazebag antihero Don Draper asks the client exactly how cigarettes are made. They talk through the process, mentioning the tobacco is toasted – and Don says, “there’s your line. It’s toasted.”

But, the Lucky Strike guys protest, all cigarette tobacco is toasted. There’s nothing special about the way Lucky Strike toasts its tobacco.

“Doesn’t matter,” Don says. “You’re the only people talking about it.”

Watching Mad Men explains a truly depressing amount about the success of John Key’s government.

Take their employment law changes: right now, they’re legislating away the right to a tea break, replacing the current mandatory minimum rest periods (two 10-minute breaks and one half-hour break for an 8-hour shift) with non-mandatory, “if your employer thinks it’s unreasonable they can take it away” rest periods. And the examples that keep getting cited are of teachers (those unreliable moochers) “just” walking out of a classroom when break time rolls around, or air traffic controllers “just” downing tools and letting all the planes crash.

The fact is, minimum breaks aren’t currently set to a compulsory schedule. The law does not say, “if you start at 8am then you must stop work at 10am for 10 minutes”. They’re a minimum level because some employers absolutely would make you work a twelve hour shift non-stop if they could (and probably pay you $2 an hour for it too.)

But you never hear about it. And because people are generally well-natured and assume their political leaders are well-natured too (and that their media is well-informed and analytical and will provide any necessary context) it just gets taken for granted that there must be a problem with our current break system. Because, well, the Minister says of course he supports regular rest breaks! National wouldn’t take them away unless there was a problem, right? It’s just giving people flexibility, and they obviously need flexibility, you can’t just have air traffic controllers wandering off and letting all the planes crash.

It was the same story around 90-day fire-at-will trials. Under the old law, employers could put new workers on probationary periods – longer probationary periods than the 90-day trials, even! The difference was, those probationary periods had to be genuine trials. Workers had to be given feedback on their performance, and still had basic work rights – unlike the 90-day trials.

But you never heard about it. And because people are generally well-natured, etc, it just got taken for granted that we needed the 90-day trial period. Because, well, they wouldn’t do it if it already existed, right? It’s just fair to allow employers to give someone a go, right? Why are you complaining about job creation?

It’s lying by omission, capitalising on people’s goodwill and faith that our government isn’t really an out-of-control pack of cynical profiteers, who rule for the rich and powerful and put no stock in ideas about wellbeing, community or anything besides the money they can get their hands on right now.

Watch for it.

(For a side-by-side comparison of the tea break rules, check Helen Kelly’s Twitter.)

Added: I’d already written this article when Mike Hosking’s diatribe about “just work hard and your boss will never exploit you” came out. Suffice it to say, I think if you’ve never worked in a role where your rest breaks were strictly scheduled, and you didn’t have to worry about how much you earned in your first job, you are a very, very privileged person.