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Harawira: Probationary Employment Bill Speech

Employment Relations (Probationary Employment) Bill Hone Harawira; Maori Party Spokesperson for Employment Wednesday 23 November 2006

You know Mr Speaker, some Bills just come up at the right time. This is one of them.

This week marks the anniversary of the death of Sojourner Truth, the famous anti-slavery activist. Indeed, in the US, November is designated as Truth Month; and in Michigan, there's even a Sojourner Truth Day coming up on Sunday.

And I have no doubt that these were all facts that completely by-passed Dr Mapp in bringing this Bill back to the House.

If the name Sojourner sounds familiar, it's because in 1995, NASA named the Mars Pathfinder rover the "Sojourner" in honour of her birth some 200 years ago.

Sojourner Truth was born into slavery, and became the property of four more owners before she finally marched to freedom in 1826. From that time on, she travelled the land, preaching the truth and working against injustice.

According to the stories, everywhere that Sojourner Truth spoke, she made a lasting impression. That could have been because she was over six feet tall and had a powerful and booming voice, but it might also have been because of the power of her message. She was a seeker of truth, a fighter for human rights, and a campaigner against injustice.

So what can Sojourner Truth possibly have to do with Wayne Mapp and the Employment Relations (Probationary Employment) Amendment Bill?

Simple. In this Truth Month, we look to her legacy as another example of the inspiration so many black activists have given to indigenous people, about how to tackle systemic bias and fight institutional racism, in order to effect change.

Truth 1: Is a Probationary Period Necessary?

The Bill proposes the introduction of a 90-day probation period during which prospective new employees will be assessed by their employers.

It's something employers have been gassin' about for years, but in fact current legislation already provides for probationary periods. The problem seems to be that employers simply don't know that those provisions are there; a problem which could be easily fixed by better employer education and workplace communication - not a new Bill.

The solution would seem to lie in better informing employers about how to use the provisions - you know - a 'How to Read the Act' kind of brochure might be a good outcome from this Bill.

Truth 2: The Introduction of a Probationary Period will address Maori unemployment

The Maori Party copped a fair bit of flak for our decision to refer this Bill to select committee.

Our people simply could not understand why we were having any truck with it at all, but our motive was always clear.

Our role as a party is "to defend Maori rights, and to advance Maori aspirations, in the best interests of the whole nation." But it is also our responsibility to get the best possible information on which to make our decisions.

And so we referred the Bill to a select committee to hear submissions on the Bill. We wanted to hear the views of Maori workers, Maori employers, Maori unemployed and their whanau about things like: * How to address the situation of generations of Maori unemployment; * How to deal with the massive gaps between Maori and non-Maori income; and * How to deal with institutional racism.

And Mr Speaker, we were disappointed with the truths that came back from the select committee, because there was simply no evidence at all to support the claim that removing workers rights would increase Maori employment.

We were open to the possibility that there might be benefits in 'taking a chance', but in the end, we weren't prepared to support the wiping out of rights built up over generations, on the off-chance that it might work.

And as my co-leader Tariana Turia said last week in the context of the Student Loan Bill, despite comparable academic qualifications or skill levels, Maori are still being subjected to bias from employers.

The Truth is that in the new millennium, Maori are STILL employed less and paid less than other New Zealanders, and the Mapp Bill will do nothing to change the persistent racism of that reality.

The multiple causes of Maori unemployment would be far better addressed through initiatives around job skills, training, mentoring and education; regional and rural employment; and eliminating racism from the workplace.

Truth 3: That the Bill will encourage employers to 'take a chance' with new employees without facing the risk of personal grievance procedures

Mr Speaker, the Maori Party will look at anything to improve Maori opportunities for employment, but this Bill simply doesn't do it.

Sure, employers may 'take a chance', but they can also 'take advantage' by choosing to dismiss workers rather than investing in them.

There were heaps of submission about the fears that workers have, particularly for those already vulnerable to racism, those unaware of their rights; and those who get dropped back to casual employment; because once they're out the door, they got to stand down for thirteen weeks before they can get the dole - the cycle of unemployment, and the treadmill of shame.

Submissions also noted the lack of evidence to back up the argument that probationary periods actually result in employers offering jobs to those less likely, or less able to find employment.

Truth 4: The Bill does not Create a Grievance Industry

Mr Speaker, the age-old argument about so-called grievance industries always gets pulled out when an argument is losing ground.

Treaty settlements are well tarred with this brush - but the truth is that grievances did happen, again and again and again - no matter how much the thief (who happen to be the government), or the policemen (who happen to be the government), or the judges (who happen to be the government), or the juries (who happen to be the government as well), might seek to diminish it.

Mr Speaker, treaty settlement is not an industry - it's a lifetime commitment to righting the wrongs, and to seeking justice for those generations yet to come.

And in this Bill however, the grievance industry is an outright myth. In 2004, only 0.05% - that's 5 out of every 10,000 workers - even applied for mediation and even less take it any further.

So maybe we should be looking to ensuring that employers treat their employees properly, rather than be afraid of the 'hardly-ever' PGs arising.

The other point of course, is that personal grievances are neither expensive nor drawn out. In 2004, 83% of the urgent cases referred to Mediation were dealt with in fifteen days, and 93% within three months.

In fact, only 20% (that's 0.01% of all cases) actually ended up before the Employment Relations Authority. So much for the grievance argument.

Truth No 5 : Workers Rights Remain Unscathed

It was also noted by many submitters that the intention to waive workers rights through this Bill, was actually in breach of both the Employment Relations Act and the Bill of Rights.

The Maori Party holds the provisions for fairness, good faith and fair treatment in high regard as the basis of employment law. The right to work, and workers rights - must be both upheld in a way which protects both the workers and allows sufficient flexibility for employers.

Like Sojourner Truth, our journey with this Bill has not been an easy one, but in the end our commitment to upholding fundamental human rights was a driving force in our decision.

We simply could not support removing the right to mediation, and dropping the right to appeal bad decisions.

We support the right for everyone in Aotearoa to take a chance - but the risks we would take in letting this particular rocket fly are simply too great to be acceptable, and for all these reasons, we will be voting against this Bill.


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