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Hone Harawira: Employment Relations Bill

Employment Relations (Breaks and Infant Feeding) Amendment Bill

Hone Harawira, Maori Party Member of Parliament for Te Tai Tokerau

Thursday 7 August 2008

Exactly 100 years ago, miners at Blackball down on the West Coast, were sacked for daring to ask for a thirty minute meal break instead of the fifteen minutes the bosses said they could have, and over the last century, those mining heroes have been joined by other advocates, in the fight for workers rights, and there have been many struggles to achieve a comprehensive set of rights – annual and public holidays, sick and bereavement leave, penalty payments, overtime, and even the supply of tea, milk and sugar.

In fact you’d think that every possible right that a worker might want, would already be accepted practice, in today’s modern world.

So it came as a bit of a shock to hear that earlier this year, up north they were treating Filipino nurses like slaves – because of debts they were supposed to have to their recruitment agencies – and forcing them to work in desperate conditions, and bonding them for three years at low wages.

Or the one John Minto told me about, when he was rung up by a woman working in the departure lounge at Auckland International Airport, starting work every day at 4.30am and not getting a break till just before midday.

Naturally, worker turnover is high, but instead of trying to find out why, WINZ just keeps sending more workers into the fray – mostly women, and mainly Maori, Pacific or other recently-arrived ethnic minorities.

Madam Speaker, I thought we’d gotten rid of these kind of conditions years ago, but apparently not.

It’s bloody outrageous that in 2008, that we even have to have a Bill to make employers give workers paid rest breaks and unpaid meal breaks, and bizarre as it may seem, the need for protecting workers rights is as relevant now as it was 100 years ago.

In fact, less than 24 hours ago, Te Runanga o Nga Kaimahi Maori o Aotearoa, the national representative body of some 60,000 Maori workers, declared their support for the rolling strike action being taken by Sky City workers this week, who are being threatened by moves to rollback working conditions, and create a new minimum wage structure.

And if these horror stories aren’t enough, here’s another one from Laila Harre of the National Distribution Union, who told the select committee about an employee in a high-end dress shop who was told by her boss to use a bucket out the back of the shop, rather than lock up when she needed to go to the toilet.

Madam Speaker, it makes me ashamed to think that we have some employers in this country, who will treat their staff like this, in pursuit of the mighty dollar, but apparently the Service and Food Workers Union reckon that most of the calls they get are from workers and parents of kids who have just started work, asking about their rest and meal break entitlements.

So yes, Madam Speaker, the Maori Party supports the provisions for workers to have meal breaks, to help raise minimum standards for workers in Aotearoa – the only question being of course, how come it’s taken so long?

Like many others, I thought meal breaks were already compulsory, but apparently not, and although I know that there are many excellent employers out there, doing everything they can to ensure their workers are happy and productive, clearly there are also those out there, who just don’t give a damn.

Madam Speaker, the other focus of this Bill is to allow mothers to breastfeed their children at work, and given that the 2006 Census shows that 75% of mothers of baby children are now being forced into work to just help make ends meet, then this bill is simply recognition of that sad reality.

Economic circumstances are forcing young mothers to go to work, and this Bill allows mothers to feed and nurture their babies at the workplace.

Mind you, the other side of this whole issue is the deepening economic crisis that is forcing both parents to have to work to feed, clothe and house families today, as compared to thirty odd years ago when families were able to be sustained, on just the one wage.

Madam Speaker, when the 40-hour working week was first introduced, it was based on the understanding that forty hours would be enough to support a household.

Clearly, that scenario no longer applies, clearly, the comparative standard of living has fallen alarmingly, and just as clearly, we need to be worried about this continuing pressure on families not only to work, but often for both parents to hold down two and sometimes three jobs each.

It might have been better if the sponsor of this Bill had simply extended paid parental leave to 12 months – so that women could actually stay home rather than be forced to return to work, with their children at the breast.

But in the absence of that, and the reality of the pressing economic crisis on families in Aotearoa, this bill allows women to breastfeed in the workplace, and hopefully will encourage the government to move quickly to implement ILO Convention 183 – which arose out of the revision of maternity protection.

Madam Speaker, the Maori Party will endorse the breastfeeding provisions consistent with our push for paid parental leave and support for whanau, and we will support the meal break provisions in line with our clearly stated support for workers rights.


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