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NZ Workers Happy With Jobs, Unions, Employers

New Zealand Workers Happy With Jobs, Unions, Employers

The vast majority of New Zealander workers are happy with their jobs, their unions and their employers, a major study of employee attitudes has found.

New Zealanders' Influence at Work is one of the most comprehensive studies yet of workplace relations in this country.

Study authors, Professor Peter Boxall and Peter Haynes of The University of Auckland Business School, with Keith Macky of Massey University (Albany), say their findings indicate the Employment Relations Act is working well and workplace relationships are generally very healthy.

"For the vast majority of workers at least, radical legislative change is not called for at this point."

However, the authors note an important caveat.

"These high levels of worker satisfaction follow a lengthy period of sustained employment growth and settled industrial relations in a relatively benign economic climate - a 'summer of content.'

"The Act has yet to be tested in difficult economic conditions. If workers were to be confronted by a wave of sub-inflationary wage adjustments and/or downsizing, they might report less satisfaction with their employment and find their influence more limited than previously thought." The authors say a better understanding of how workers feel about labour market regulation and their experiences of paid employment will assist the quality of government, employer and union policy making.

The report calculates the 'representation gap' in New Zealand - the number of workers who would like to join a union but can not because one is not available in their workplace - at 16% of the workforce. This is half the US level (which stands at 32%), indicating that while there is room for improvement, New Zealanders have better access to unions than US workers.

While the Employment Contracts Act 1991 led to a major decline in union membership and power - and therefore the ability of workers to express their concerns about their employers - some of that "lost voice" has been made up through the extension of non-union voice mechanisms such as consultative committees.

The survey's main findings:

* Most New Zealanders are very happy with their jobs and their employers - and certainly more positive than either their American or British counterparts. Trust levels, feelings of security, loyalty and overall job satisfaction are high. Almost nine out of 10 workers say they are satisfied with their jobs overall and seven out of 10 see their current position as part of their long-term career.

* Most workers say their employers have one or more procedures for resolving workplace problems and/or for involving workers in decision-making, such as open door policies, regular staff meetings, consultative committees, and employee involvement programmes. Only five per cent of workers do not have access to any of these procedures.

* Non-union representation is growing. Around half of workers report the presence of consultative committees, which is about twice the coverage of collective bargaining. The rolling back of unionism under the Employment Contracts Act seems not to have been accompanied by a decline in management-employee consultation.

* Workers enjoy high levels of influence across most areas of workplace decision-making - especially in determining how they do their jobs. But they want even greater influence, particularly in determining pay rises and deciding perks and bonuses. "The more influence workers have, the higher they tend to rate the quality of their employment relationships and management performance," say the study's authors. "There is a good basis in New Zealand for the development of high-performance work systems which depend, among other things, on high levels of employee involvement in decision-making".

* Union membership is the norm in the public sector but not in the private sector. Overall, 28 per cent of employees sampled are union members, although another 16 per cent say they would like to join a union if one were available. This unsatisfied demand for union membership (the "representation gap") is greatest among younger and lower paid workers in small, hard-to-organise workplaces. "Protecting these workers' rights depends very much on adequate government resourcing of the Department of Labour inspectorate, rather than further regulation," say the authors.

* New Zealand workers favour high levels of union-management cooperation. While expecting unions to fight hard for employee interests when these are threatened, both union and non-union members believe that unions should cooperate more closely with management. This expectation also applies to management: workers think that employers should pursue cooperative strategies towards unions.

* Union members represent 62 per cent of employees in unionised workplaces. While the remaining 40 per cent are technically "free riding," these workers are a mix of "passive beneficiaries" of union gains (people who benefit from flow-ons but are not in unionised work) and "calculating free riders" (who are in jobs organised by unions and are consciously stealing the benefits). Dealing with the problem of free-riding is thus not straightforward, either for unions or for public policy.

New Zealanders' Influence at Work based its findings on the New Zealand Worker Representation and Participation Survey (NZWRPS), which randomly sampled and interviewed by phone 1000 employees across New Zealand in January and February.

The University of Auckland provided the bulk of the funding for NZWRPS with assistance from the Department of Labour and Workplace New Zealand.

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