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Pita Sharples: Employment Relations Amendment Bill

Employment Relations Amendment Bill:

Dr Pita Sharples; Co-leader Māori Party

Thursday 23 February 2006

I have been amused at some of the political commentators who have passed judgement on the performance of the Māori Party MPs, suggesting that because my learned colleague from the North, Hone Harawira, and myself have donned a tie, that miraculously we have acquired a sense of discipline, an honest work ethic, a conscientious approach to the endeavours of this House.

The reality is that hard work, industry, efficiency, planning and accomplishment are synonymous with what it is to be Māori. Our earliest documented histories emphasise the advantages of work and of communal effort. Equally, it is evident from any analysis of pre-colonial employment, that idleness, clumsiness or wastefulness were treated with contempt.

One of the expressions of that time was:

Ma te werawera o tou mata e kai ai koe i te haunga ahi o te kai.

This can be interpreted to mean that by the perspiration on your face you will taste the piquant flavour of cooked food. In other words, hard honest work by all will bring its own rewards.

The rewards of collective prosperity, of unity, the well-being of the people are values that pass down the generations.

In this world view, the possibility of vulnerable employees who were affected by the sale or transfer of a business, or contracting out of work, simply does not fit.

For a start - as in the old English adage - the measure of the community is only as strong as its weakest link.

Moving down the centuries I wonder what our tipuna would have thought of the workplaces of today.

Mr speaker, the Māori Party will be supporting the Employment Relations Amendment Bill. We do so in recognition of the fact that quality employment and productivity emerge from a decent work environment and decent wages. A decent work environment means that all staff are valued, including vulnerable workers. And that is exactly how it should be.

Mauri mahi, mauri ora; mauri noho, mauri mate.

Industry begets prosperity; idleness begets insecurity.

Or through collective effort, supporting all members of the team, we can achieve economic gains and social stability.

To achieve these goals, we now know that employment protection is required to ensure groups of vulnerable employees are not standing out in the cold.

And who are these vulnerable employees? Well one thing is for sure - they don’t get promoted with a glossy career profile, encouraging our children to grow up to be a vulnerable worker.

Mr Speaker, when we consider the situation for vulnerable workers, we are considering the situation for many Māori workers.

In the 1980s the ruthless economic restructuring driven through by Labour increased Maori unemployment to record levels. I remember - 22%. The damage caused in the 1980s has left a lasting impact, with the unemployment rate of 7.6% for Maori still three times that of Pakeha (2.5%). That equates to thousands of Maori available for and seeking work.

Facing the choice between the dole queues or foodbanks many of our people will accept employment which is casualised, lowly paid and insecure.

We believe that the Bill being discussed here today, will benefit the many Maori workers and their whanau who are affected by subsequent contracting.

Without the amendments that are tabled in this House, vulnerable workers stand to lose employment (and thus their income), face precarious terms and conditions or have changes imposed on them (such as changing hours of work, increased workload and thus associated stress), when there is a contract change.

The legislation will overtake the Employment Court decision made last year that said employees did not have employment protection in succession to contract situations.

Mr Speaker, again this House is facing the dire consequences of an error of lawmaking - much as we saw last week with the Land Transport Amendment Bill.

The legislation amends section 6 A of the Act, relating to the transfer of terms and conditions for certain vulnerable workers when a business is sold, or work contracted out.

As this House will recall, last July, six Dunedin kindergarten cleaners lost their bid to keep their jobs in the first case to test employment protection provisions included in legislation in 2004.

The workers found themselves out of a job after their employer's cleaning contract was taken over by another company, Crest Commercial Cleaning, which declined to keep them on.

It’s all well and good to say that the intent of the original Act was always to protect the terms and conditions and continuity of employment for vulnerable workers such as cleaners.

Well as the Employment Court in Gibbs (and others) v Crest Commercial Cleaning Ltd showed, the provisions of the Act were not clear enough to uphold the intention in the event of subsequent contracting.

Once again, as with the Land Transport error, it’s real families, real workers, real situations that suffer because of sloppy drafting.

Workers who are already on low incomes.

Workers who may already be under pressure as they manage the demands of juggling their employment with childcare, whanau/community commitments.

Workers who may be struggling to manage multiple employment responsibilities, in the stress of trying to supplement low pay and scrabble together enough to put bread on the table.

And we know that the face of these workers is brown.

We have been glad to meet with Te Kauae Kaimahi Runanga, who represent the jawbone of Māori trade union workers.

And we are aware of the huge impact that poverty wages, casualisation insecurities and cultural undervaluing that goes on for far too many workers who are Māori.

Mr Speaker, the amendments are setting in place a practical solution to a very real problem. The Māori Party is aware that contracting changeovers are happening all the time and every week low paid workers are losing their employment as a result.

Workers are telling us too often that imposed changes to work hours can, and does result in job loss.

Without the amendments, employers are able to screw down wages and conditions.

The Bill ensures that employees can enforce their rights now when an employer fails to provide the right to elect to transfer, by providing remedies and penalties for non-compliance.

If a worker transferring to an new employer is surplus to their needs, they have the right to bargain redundancy entitlements from the new employer.

The legislation being laid here today is a step along the way to assisting our vulnerable workers improve their lot.

But it is still only a limp band-aid on a seeping hakihaki, that’s like a sore, oozing out over this nation. The spreading sickness of poverty.

This Parliament must seek to reduce the gap between low income taxpayers and the average income for the Nation.

How often do we need to remind this House that six out of every ten Maori have an annual income of $20,000 or less?

Or putting it another way, that the incomes of Maori people are on average $163 less per week than Pakeha [$437 compared to $600].

The Māori Party has always said that if we are looking for real progress for our workers and families, the most effective policy change is that minimum wage rate be increased to $12.50. This would mean a figure in the vicinity of $25,000 for those working between 37.5 and 40 hours per week.

So while we are happy to support the new amendments in their intention to establish employment protection in succession to contract situations, we will not resile from continuing to front the challenge against poverty in Aotearoa.

We believe that in a buoyant economy we should expect more people to benefit from employment opportunities and wages that can support real living conditions.

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