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Sue Bradford Speech on Employment Relations Bill

Employment Relations Bill Second Reading Speech Sue Bradford MP Green Party Tuesday 8 August 2000

Mr Speaker

I am sure that many MPs - along with the vast majority of New Zealanders - share my sense of relief as Parliament begins the final stages of debate on the Employment Relations Bill.

The Select Committee process which is now complete has been intense, protracted and, at times, difficult. But despite comments from some opposition parties, I believe the process has been democratic - and in fact, after coming to Parliament with a huge degree of scepticism about the public accountability or otherwise of procedures here, I have been singularly impressed by what has actually happened with first the ACC Bill and now the ERB.

The select committee process has meant, of course, that anyone who cares to has been able to come and make direct representations to us on these two highly controversial pieces of legislation, and all these people and groups have had the right to be heard with respect. The Bill before us has been amended in a number of ways in response to these submissions - and while no one, least of all the Government, ever pretended the Bill was faultless - and although the Green Party is the first to agree that it still hasn't reached perfection, the Bill in its amended form is a lot better than what we started with. MPs have listened to the anxieties of submitters, and a number of changes have been made in response.

Just as one example, from early on our Party was very concerned with the possible effects of clauses six and 154 on people who considered they were independent contractors and wanted to remain that way. We made it clear from an early stage that we would not allow this clause to go through unchanged, even if it meant that we would end up voting with the opposition parties. We were therefore pleased that the Government itself saw fit to amend this area in a way which I believe will leave all concerned clear that their employment status will not and cannot be changed unless they wish it to be.

The campaign against the Employment Relations Bill - particularly from ACT - has been high on emotion and even higher on misinformation. Like other parties here, the Greens have been on the receiving end of many communications from businesses worried about the Bill. I'd like to say to those people that first of all, we believe that if you are a good employer, once you see what the Bill really says, and what it means for your organisation, you will have very little to fear, and that in fact, there will be benefits you may not have been aware of amidst the anti-Government hype.

Secondly, I'd like to make it clear that the Green Party's publicly stated policy before, during and after last year's election campaign has always been to work with Labour and the Alliance to overturn the worst features of the Employment Contracts Act as soon as possible, and to support fairer alternative legislation. Having lead demonstrations against the ECA and the benefit cuts in 1991, and seen at first hand the devastating effects of those policies on thousands of people over the last nine years, I am honoured to stand here today and pledge the Green Party's continued support to a Bill which will make New Zealand not only a better place to work, but also a better place to do business.

The opposition would have us believe that the Employment Relations Bill is a revolutionary and extreme piece of legislation. I would suggest it is not a patch on their Employment Contracts Act.

Under the nine years of the ECA the number of jobless increased by 26 per cent - from 176,000 in December 1990 to 222,000 in December 1999. During the same period, the number of people in part time work tripled from 49,000 to 149,000.

The ECA has casualised the New Zealand work force, seen the rise of contracting out, part time and temporary work, and pressed down the wages and conditions of huge numbers of workers. All this has eroded that quaint notion of 'job security' and left many people moving constantly between employment and unemployment, on very low and insecure incomes.

We've also seen the rise of sweated labour, something some of us had thought disappeared decades ago, with horrific cases, particularly of migrant workers, being exploited at wages and conditions way below legal minimums in a number of worksites and industries.

And not only has the ECA let down workers, it has also been a failure for the New Zealand economy. Just as one example, the International Institute of Management Development in Switzerland notes that we have dropped from number 11 in international competitiveness in 1996 to number 21 this year.

Turning now to the process we are about to go through over the next few days, I'd like to signal the intention of the Green Party to move a small number of amendments to the Bill. One of the key proposals we are putting forward is supported by a number of submitters including the CTU and the Trade Union Federation, and calls for workers to have the right to strike on significant social, environmental and political issues.

We believe that this is a fundamental democratic right, linked to the recognition that workers are human beings, not mere commodities in the marketplace. The right to withdraw labour is a matter of individual choice, not taken lightly. If New Zealand is to become a signatory to ILO Convention 87, the Government must give consideration to supporting the Green Party's amendment to allow a broader right to strike.

I know there are many members of the Labour and Alliance parties who are proud of their own involvement in industrial action including strikes, pickets and boycotts over issues such as the 1981 Springbok Tour and the campaign to keep nuclear warships out of our waters. And recently I think such members would have had difficulty in their heart of hearts in denying support for union actions in solidarity with the East Timorese and Fijian peoples' struggles for peace and democracy.

I ask these Government members to reconsider their opposition to the extension of the right to strike, and to vote in consciousness of their own proud labour history, rather than accepting the compromise represented by the Bill in its current form.

Another amendment where I again seek support from the Government benches and New Zealand First - and from other parties if they'd like to surprise us - is for a new Clause 66 relating to the situation of workers in the service sector whose jobs keep being sold out from under them, with resulting losses of jobs and / or conditions and pay. I am all too aware of the controversy surrounding this clause and of repeated Government assurances that something will be done about it at a later date.

However, we have come back with a new version of Clause 66 which I believe narrows down the parameters so it is not the kind of catch all clause which has been criticised by employers, opposition parties and Government alike.

Our intention with the revised amendment is to cover workers who are employed as cleaners, catering and laundry workers, security guards and grounds workers in places like commercial buildings, airports, tertiary institutions, hospitals and rest homes.

The new clause is an indigenous solution to the problems that contract workers face when the existing provider of one of these services lose the contract - usually through a competitive tendering process - to another service provider. The aim is to provide protection for workers' jobs, pay and conditions in this situation. We seek to ameliorate the contracting culture which sees contractors making successful bids for tenders by one means only - maintaining their profit margin and winning contracts by cutting wages and conditions of a predominantly female and Pacific Island labour force already struggling to support their families with some sense of dignity and pride.

If this Government is serious about ending the worst facets of life under the ECA it must give serious consideration to supporting our amended Clause 66. It is not good enough to wait until a Minimum Code comes about some time in the future - for a start none of us knows when this will actually happen, and secondly, workers need protection now, not in some far off time to come.

Which brings me to a final point - as most workers, unions and members of the public understand, the Employment Relations Bill will in itself, be of only limited use to many of the most defenceless workers. The vast majority of workers are not unionised, and many are in scattered workplaces or casualised jobs. Young people, women, and Maori, Pacific Island and migrant workers in general are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. For this reason it is imperative that the development of a sound and comprehensive Minimum Code becomes a top priority for the Government's legislative agenda. Workers need safeguards in relation to minimum wages, minimum holidays, paid parental leave and other equal employment opportunity protections, and attention also needs to be given to increased security for part time and casual workers.

I sincerely hope that the passing of the Employment Relations Bill won't see the Government resting on its laurels, but rather working comprehensively on a sound Minimum Code. I also hope that the Government will seriously reconsider its stance on Clause 66, and vote for our amendment which will bring back protection and respect for some of the most exploited workers in Aotearoa.

ends

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