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.

Repost: A rightwing fairytale about Labour Day

(Originally posted at On The Left.)

I was casting about for something to write today, and that’s when the Internet gave me a gift: a column from Rodney Hide, conveniently timed, which decries the role of unions and even the very history of Labour Day:

Tomorrow is Labour Day. Once again we will endure the annual claptrap that unions are great and won for us the eight-hour day. Without unions we would be working 24/7. It’s nonsense.

He cites the story of Samuel Parnell, considered the father of the eight-hour working day. Conventional history will tell you that, in a terribly union-y fashion, Parnell organised his fellow tradesmen in Wellington to refuse to work more than an eight-hour day. Rodney tells it a little differently:

Hence was born the eight-hour day. The practice caught on. For more than 100 years we have celebrated the eight-hour day as a victory for trade unionism. We know it as Labour Day which, on the fourth Monday of every October, is a public holiday.

It’s a myth. The so-called victory had nothing to do with unions. It was simple supply and demand. The demand for skilled labour was high in the new and growing settlement. The supply was low.

Parnell could have negotiated more pay. But he chose fewer hours. That was his choice. That was the free market.

The myths are actually all on Rodney’s side. The myth that good business practices just “catch on”, like a fashion trend – when the reality is that unions almost always lead the way in securing better wages and conditions for workers, which non-unionised businesses then have to keep up with – unless of course you’ve spent a few decades dismantling workers’ rights and entrenching the power of employers, so they can do things like refuse to offer frontline workers a basic guaranteed number of hours while your CEO earns $11,000 a day.

The myth that the concept of unionism can’t have been involved in Parnell’s victory, because “it was just about supply and demand”. Yes, this was a unique circumstance – in 1840 Wellington there were literally three carpenters. You couldn’t hire one from London and pop them on the next plane over.

But that doesn’t change the fact that the eight-hour victory came down to collective action. If Parnell had said “nope, only working eight hours, soz” and the other two carpenters had said “sweet, we’ll take the job” there would be no history to remember on Labour Day.

The difference is that today, very few workers are in a position to say “well there’s only three of us you can hire, so you have to take our terms.” These days, thousands of people will queue for 150 supermarket jobs. People are living in cars. They don’t have the luxury of leveraging their specialised skills in a remote corner of the world.

And thirdly, the myth that unions have never achieved anything, ever. It’s a standard rightwing line. It relies on people taking a lot of things for granted – like equal pay for women, having four weeks’ annual leave, getting sick leave, having basic health and safety protocols in the workplace.

The greatest achievement is this, though: if you’re in a union, the chances are your pay is keeping up with, or even staying ahead of, inflation. This is an old graph from a 2012 post at The Standard, but it makes the point pretty clearly:

wages graph

In the year to June 2014, 98% of workers on a collective agreement got a payrise – compared to only 48% of workers on individual agreements.

I think that’s an achievement which a lot of workers can feel pretty happy about. Because they stood together. Because they leveraged their collective power into getting real gains for themselves and their fellow workers.

One important thing to note is this. It’s easy to roll your eyes at Hide’s bizarre re-writing of history. It’s easy to insult his intelligence or imply he’s out of touch with reality. But Rodney Hide isn’t a stupid man. Rodney Hide isn’t unable to see the ridiculousness of his words.

This is why the rightwing narrative has dominated NZ political discussion for years: because they decide what story they want to tell and they push it through every avenue they have. They drown out dissent and academic arguments about what really happened or how the economy really works in practice.

Let’s not read Rodney Hide’s column as a ludicrous piece of near-satire. Let’s take it for what it is: a cynical, deliberate attempt to erase the importance of unionism from New Zealand history and perpetuate the fantasy that workers and employers are on a level playing field.

And let’s celebrate Labour Day, and the power of our unions.