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Hone Harawira: Employment Relations Amendment Bill

Employment Relations Amendment Bill: Third Reading

Hone Harawira, Employment Spokesperson

Thursday 7 September 2006

Mr Speaker, a couple of months back, on the International Day of Justice for Cleaners, I asked the Deputy Prime Minister, what level of wage and salary increase would he recommend for cleaners, including those who cleaned our offices here in Parliament? I didn’t get an answer.

I’d like to think that if I was to ask that same question again today, I would.

Mind you, even if Dr Cullen doesn’t want to talk about the low wages that thousands of cleaners, food workers, laundry workers and caretakers earn in Aotearoa; at least this Bill, will do something to enhance their job security.

This Bill means that every now and then, regardless of the yelling and the screaming in this House, the posturing and the pontificating, and the downright bad manners, every now and then, we can do a decent day’s work; we can actually make a difference.

I say that because a decent day’s work is a luxury when you consider some of the terms and conditions many Kiwis are faced with.

Like our cleaners here for example. They’re on low wages, work really hard, spend lots of time away from home, and work long and difficult hours. And there are often safety issues too, especially for women, working in a large building, sometimes working alone, and often with no buses running when they finish work, so they have to walk home. I know, because our cleaners are just leaving here when I come in to work.

The attack on a Kelston primary school cleaner two months ago shows just how vulnerable cleaners working at night can be, often without security.

Not only are their working conditions poor, but cleaners are paid as little as $10.95 an hour and get little recognition for their work; and if that’s not bad enough, they also suffer from a high rate of chemical-induced skin disorders.

So doing something to help their job security is something to be proud of.

Mr Speaker, I recall just over a year ago now, while we were hot on the election trail, the cleaners working for Spotless Services at Kaitaia Hospital, going on strike over the poor conditions they faced at Kaitaia, Bay of Islands and Whangarei Hospitals.

Their action brought the attention of the nation to the plight of our most vulnerable workers, and their strike brought the media flocking to Kaitaia, spotlighting the issues of pay poverty, and penal rates for overtime.

Mr Speaker, the Maori Party is happy to support any efforts to protect the rights of vulnerable workers, as we now do in our support for this Bill, which clarifies those protections for workers affected by the sale or transfer of a business, or contracting out their work.

This Bill will safeguard terms, conditions and continuity of employment for vulnerable workers like cleaners.

Without that protection, people working for contract companies can lose their jobs, through successive contracting, when a contract changes from one company to another.

But with this Bill in place, ‘vulnerable workers’ will be allowed to transfer their employment terms and conditions, to the person who takes over the work.

It’s a good move.

Mr Speaker, I wanted to go back to the situation of the cleaners today, because it was really the cleaners, and particularly the decision of the Employment Court in Gibbs and Others v Crest Commercial Cleaning Limited which showed up the flaws in the legislation; that ‘vulnerable’ employees have less protection than ‘ordinary’ employees.

It was also the cleaners' Clean Start industrial campaign that has helped keep the heat on this issue. They have shown us how hard it is for vulnerable workers to raise their concerns about workloads, pay and conditions, and do it all while holding down several jobs at shamefully low pay, in order to make ends meet.

But I want to also highlight the wider group of vulnerable workers - food workers; laundry workers; caretakers; and cleaners - contracted in, contracted out; and often contracted off.

NZCTU research shows that contracting and casual work often results in the deterioration of health and safety for workers.

Mr Speaker, this Bill comes about because the first bill suffered from too much haste to achieve a bad result, for while it was clear that the original Employment Relations Law Reform Bill, intended to cover outsourcing and contracts, changes made to the Bill at Select Committee meant that it didn’t.

As the Court said in the Crest case “The extent to which a court can divine and apply Parliament’s true intended meaning to ill-expressed legislation is at the heart of the case.”

The rest is history. Without this Bill there are no obligations on new contract companies to offer employment, or similar terms and conditions as workers had with the outgoing company.

And how does that translate on the factory floor?

Well Mr Speaker, it means regular job losses; the loss of terms and conditions, the reduction in wages and hours, increased workloads, and the loss of entitlements, as demonstrated in discrimination against unionists and the undermining of collective bargaining.

Mr Speaker, during the course of this Bill, we here in the Maori Party have done our best to raise the scenarios in the House, of construction workers in Wellington, supermarket workers in Palmerston North, and cleaners in Kaitaia, and far, far too many of them are Maori, Pasifika, or other migrant.

Mr Speaker, why are we not surprised that often ‘poorly drafted’ legislation, makes already vulnerable workers, even more vulnerable?, and I quote again the Crest Court findings, which found that:

"Every week these situations are occurring, and every week workers continue to lose their employment, their hours, their service based entitlements, their wage rates".

So having had Parliament declare them the most vulnerable of all workers, these cleaners, have ended up with the least legal protection of any workers in New Zealand. In the meantime, this cycle of employment insecurity and oppression continues.

Mr Speaker, next week, we celebrate the anniversary of the last Apartheid Test played in this country between the All Blacks and the Springboks, and on that very same day, we also commemorate the 30th anniversary of the death of Steve Biko, a black activist from Azania who was beaten to death by the South African police while being held in detention.

On the 20th anniversary of his death, President Nelson Mandela said:

“It is the dictate of history to bring to the fore the kind of leaders who seize the moment, and who cohere the wishes and aspirations of the oppressed”.

Mr Speaker, I send my warmest congratulations and solidarity to all those vulnerable workers who have stood on the picket line, signed petitions, and taken their cases to court, to put an end to exploitation and oppression.

With this Bill, we also pay our tributes to those cleaners, those brickies, those laundry workers, who have come to the fore, who have seized the moment, and who have taken the risks, knowing that the driving thrust of their work will be to overcome oppression.

Mr Speaker, it is because of them that the Maori Party stands today in support of the Employment Relations Amendment Bill.


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