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What NZ First could do for wages

E tū's assistant national secretary John Ryall looks at the potential benefits of NZ First policy for Kiwi workers

Whatever the final arrangement of the parties forming the next government after the special votes are counted, there will be increased pressure to reform employment law to give workers more rights to negotiate higher wages.

Since 1991 New Zealand workers have suffered under what has been described as “the most flexible employment relations system in the developed world”. This includes a system of voluntary bargaining coupled with an annual decision by the Government about whether to lift the minimum wage.

But this has not served workers well with the value of wages declining, and a rise in poverty.

Forty percent of New Zealand children living in poverty have at least one adult in their household who is in full-time work

In the lead-up to the general election, the National Party Prime Minister, Bill English acknowledged that poverty and inequality had to be dealt with. And, in a post-election discussion, Business New Zealand Chief Executive, Kirk Hope told RNZ that employers were worried that a sizeable proportion of the next generation of workers was suffering through the poverty of their parents.

But both are fiercely resistant to any suggestion that this might be addressed through collective bargaining and stronger rights for workers to negotiate higher wages.

Instead, like some old-fashioned utopian socialists, they believe the state should do the heavy lifting by subsidising employers through an increased targeting of social welfare benefits to workers, accompanied by small increases in the minimum wage through order-in-council.

New Zealand First’s employment relations policies may well force a change in this approach.

Those policies are an anathema to both National and Business New Zealand, although they sit quite comfortably alongside Labour and Green policies which emphasise greater collective bargaining rights for workers to balance the huge power that employers possess, particularly in low-paid industries.

They include a commitment to a $20.00 minimum wage within three years; a statutory minimum redundancy entitlement; 26 weeks paid parental leave and another two weeks paid paternal leave; the abolition of youth rates, and a legislative assault on workforce casualisation.

NZ First leader Winston Peters launched an attack on “big business” in a recent speech to the Auckland Rotary Club for being fond of so-called flexibility while ignoring the downside “for those compelled to earn a living under conditions of continual uncertainty”.

At pre-election forums organised by the Living Wage Movement, NZ First also committed to paying the Living Wage of $20.20 an hour to directly employed government workers within 12 months. This would be extended within three years to contracted workers, including many of our members such as parliamentary cleaners and WINZ security guards.

NZ First also voted against the previous National Government’s Pay Equity Bill, aligning itself with Labour, the Greens and the Māori Party. The party has said it wants to strengthen the collective negotiating rights of women workers in female predominant industries, with arbitration through the courts if no agreement is reached. This is a process Labour wants extended to workers generally, through their Fair Pay Agreements, in industries where wages are low and bargaining power is weak.

There is much at stake for our members in the make-up of the new government. This includes workers like security guard, Roona Rani, who works at night on little more than the minimum wage, guarding train stations in Auckland. She earns $16.14 an hour. Roona will be hoping that the election result signals a change in the status quo.

A 24 percent lift in her pay to $20.00 an hour, greater job security, and an improvement in the status of security guards would make an incredible difference to her life.

Her future is in NZ First’s hands. Trading off its employment policies to preserve a fourth term National Government will not fix Roona’s situation nor satisfy those New Zealanders who voted for change.

Being the King or Queen maker gives any minor party a lot of power, but that power can be a noose around your neck if the wrong decision is made. The alternative is to honour the commitments made during the election and keep alive the promise of a better future for working people, especially those in low-paid, precarious work.   

Over the next few weeks we will see how this plays out.

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