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Employment Relations Bill Speech Sue Bradford

16 March 2000 Employment Relations Bill First Reading Speech

Sue Bradford Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand

Mr Speaker Today is an historic occasion for New Zealand workers. Since May 1991 and the double whammy of the Employment Contracts Act and the benefit cuts, the balance of economic and social power in this country has shifted drastically. The gap between rich and poor has widened with each passing day. Structural unemployment of over 200,000 and a punitive income support regime, combined with the reduced capacity of workers to bargain collectively, have lead to lower standards of living for many people and an increasingly divided society.

Thus I am honoured to stand here today on behalf of the Green Party to pledge our support to the Government's Employment Relations Bill, remembering as I do so all the workers, employed and unemployed, who have struggled over the last nine years to bring an end to the ECA regime, and to the bitterness and betrayal for which it has come to stand.

We've had enough of the divide and rule tactics which have splintered and demoralised the union movement, reduced union membership to a shadow of its former self, and seen the weakest and lowest paid members of the workforce the most vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

For many people, work has become ever increasingly casualised, and the gap between being unemployed or in work has become blurred and difficult to deal with, especially given the abatement regimes which apply to those on the community wage.

We've seen pay for some workers and jobs remain the same, or even decrease, since the early 90s. Real wages have been stagnant: the 15% rise in the average take home wage has been offset by a 15% rise in the CPI.

Conditions have been undermined through the loss of penal and overtime rates and fringe benefits. There has been a huge shift from collective to individual employment contracts, and a major growth in claims brought to the Employment Tribunal.

One feature of the new bill which I am particularly impressed with is the move to begin the process of delegalising the Employment Tribunal system. Mediation will become the first port of call in trying to resolve disputes quickly and fairly, so that expensive lawyers and long delays will become a thing of the past. This will be of huge benefit to both workers and employers.

The Green Party has among its key policies support for the development of local business and farming, with a particular focus on the needs of small enterprises. We have long campaigned for more effective, constructive working relationships in workplaces throughout New Zealand, as we will continue to do so in this Parliament.

Greens have an ongoing interest in improving processes, and we are pleased that this bill is all about creating a fairer and more harmonious industrial relations environment, not about, as some National and ACT politicians would have us believe, returning us to some mythical dark age of union extremism.

Good employers have nothing to fear in this bill. Establishing - as this bill does - a sound framework for bargaining based on good faith and mutual trust should only improve employment relations. It is time employers and workers started talking more to each other and seriously considering each other's viewpoints with a view to resolving issues.

Better employment legislation as represented in this Bill should in the long run reduce strikes, not create more, because of the promotion of mediation as the primary problem solving mechanism, and because developing a code for good faith bargaining involves a process which will be owned by both unions and employers.

One part of the concept of 'good faith' which has caused anxiety in some quarters is the requirement for certain information to be shared by employers with unions during bargaining. The concern that unions will have access to business 'secrets' does not recognise that the workers, whom unions represent, are in fact an essential part of these businesses. The old rhetoric being used by some at the moment is redolent of an archaic 'us and them' mentality. We need to go beyond an attitude that workers are a necessary evil from whom the information needed to bargain effectively is kept secret, to a situation where employees are valued and respected, both as human beings, and as indispensable contributors to the bottom line, to GDP, to economic growth and to tax revenue.

One issue which has been a problem in workplaces over recent years has been the effective use of 'collective non-enhancement policies' by employers to influence employees not to join a union. Earlier this year, the Employment Tribunal ruled as illegal Telecom's tactic of awarding pay increases only to employees on individual contracts. I hope to see the new bill putting an end to tactics such as this, despite an underlying concern that the bill does not rule out this practice.

We are pleased to see that this bill corrects a serious issue for those who are in every respect employees but who are currently labelled independent contractors, and who, as a consequence, have little job security and are disadvantaged in their employment relationship. It is great that this bill will extend rights such as collective agreements, good faith bargaining and class action to people like courier drivers and others who work in some of the most exploitative industries around.

The Green Party is keen to explore over the next few months ways in which the bill can be extended to recognise the important role workers and their organisations can play in raising awareness and taking action on environmental and human rights issues. We believe that questions of environmental health and political and economic democracy are critical, and we support workers' rights to take collective action beyond that allowed under the bill before us.

Community organisations and unions in this country have a proud history of human rights and environmental activism. Many in the current Government have actively protested against apartheid and nuclear testing. The unions and industrial action were part of these protest movements, yet under the ECA and the current bill, such action would be illegal.

Do Labour and Alliance members remember the fight against nuclear warships coming into our ports, for example, the action by seafarers and watersiders when the USS Truxton visited Wellington Harbour in the late 1970s? They were putting into action Federation of Labour policy opposing nuclear weapons, policy which was later enacted by the Labour Party in the teeth of strong opposition from defence allies.

And who can forget 1981, when the Seafarers Union went on strike in every port in which the Springbok tests were played? Just last year, it was unions in Australia, with the support of the people of East Timor, who took action to prevent airline passengers travelling to Indonesia. It is through this type of industrial action that unions have challenged horrors such as nuclear weapons, apartheid and genocide - surely we can't deny the right of workers of the future to take action on issues which are just as significant to all New Zealanders.

Another area of particular concern for the Green Party is the situation of non-unionised workers, particularly those in small work places, and in casual or part time work. For many of these employees there is no relevant collective agreement or union. This raises the importance of adequate minimum code legislation, and we are keen to push the Government to move as fast as it can on raising minimum wage rates for adults and young people, improving minimum wage setting processes, and looking at extending holiday and parental leave provisions. In the end, for all too many workers today, the minimum code is still the only protection they will have for the foreseeable future, and we should not delay dealing with it for a moment longer than is necessary.

In the area of the operation of unions under the new bill, we do have some slight qualms about the provision to lower union membership to as low as two people. There are real questions here about how viable of union of two, or even ten workers really is, financially and industrially; and about the impact the proposed change will have on other incorporated society legislation and practice.

We believe legal aid provisions should also be looked at in relation to small unions and worker associations, if they are to have any real sustainability.

New Zealand has urgently needed better legislation governing workplace relations for a very long time. The Green Party will be doing everything it can through the select committee process to listen well to submitters and to work with other members to improve the bill before us. We are looking forward to a new generation of industrial relations in which fairness and equity are the guiding principles, rather than the contempt and divisiveness of the past.


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