2004 Brings Gains for
Article By Ross Wilson
Workers and unions can celebrate a number of victories in 2004 – victories that mean improved wages and conditions for thousands of New Zealanders.
While union members continued to benefit from the strength of collective bargaining, the entire workforce won with improvements to the Employment Relations Act and the Holidays Act. Others benefited from improvements to paid parental leave, increases in the minimum wage and more protection if their employer became insolvent.
Unions lobbied the Government hard for these improvements. Workers are still making up the ground that was lost in the 1990s when the National government’s Employment Contracts Act stripped workers of many of their rights and working conditions.
The Employment Relations Act was the Labour-led government’s answer to the ECA. It aimed to improve the power balance between employer and workers, and brought in a new era of collective bargaining based on “good faith” relationships. This year the ERA was reviewed.
In the review, unions successfully pushed for the law to promote collective bargaining, rather than just allow it to happen; concrete and meaningful good faith provisions with penalties for breaches; an end to freeloading by non-union members; and the protection of vulnerable workers when their work is transferred to another employer.
It is now a breach of the ERA for an employer to induce someone not to join a union, or to undermine collective bargaining. Deliberate breaches of good faith will incur penalties, and if the bargaining process breaks down the Employment Relations Authority can determine the terms and conditions of a collective agreement.
Fee-paying union members have long been sick of the pay and conditions won by them through collective bargaining being passed on to their non-union colleagues for free. The ERA now includes a clause which allows unions and employers to agree that non-union workers who benefit from bargaining will pay a fee. It also allows non-union employees to opt out and do their own bargaining rather than get the pass-on.
The other major improvement to the ERA protects the most vulnerable and low-paid workers whose work is transferred to another employer. For an identified group of these workers (mainly cleaners and catering staff) there is a requirement for the new employer in a transfer, sale or contracting out situation to employ every worker on the same terms or conditions, or pay redundancy compensation. Many of these workers, such as contract cleaners, have endured loss of pay and conditions and job insecurity under new employers.
Unions also celebrated a victory when the Holidays Act was reviewed and workers won back payment of time and a half plus a day off in lieu, for working on a public holiday.
There were also improvements to sick and bereavement leave provisions – and a promise of a fourth week of annual leave in 2007.
Eligibility for paid parental leave was widened to include women who had six months with an employer (down from one year), eligibility increased to 13 weeks and payments rose.
Unions will continue to push for improvements to the paid parental leave scheme which we say unfairly excludes women in part-time jobs that are for less than 10 hours a week, and seasonal short-term or casual workers who don’t work continuously for six months before the birth. We are also calling for an increase in the level of payment.
The Council of Trade Unions was also represented on the Pay and Employment Equity Taskforce that was set up to close the pay gap between men and women in the public sector. Unions will continue to advocate for fair pay in both the public and the private sector.
Unions were also involved – alongside employers – in a number of Government groups designed to bring about economic growth that will benefit workers. These included the Workplace Productivity Working Group and the Growth and Innovation Advisory Board.
Looking ahead, the CTU sees the growth of productivity and a strong economy – where the benefits are shared throughout society – as a focus of its work in 2005.
The proposed free trade agreement with China will open up opportunities in the primary production and processing sector, but may have a downside impact on the manufacturing sector and the 300,000 jobs there.
Unions believe the answer is to build a high skill, high value economy which competes internationally on the design and quality of what we produce. We are advocating for a major adult education programme on productivity because we believe that that there is tremendous productive potential in the workforce, but the workplace culture must be changed to allow this potential to be realised.
Workers are an employer’s greatest resource. Recognising and valuing their knowledge, skills and experience will help to significantly lift productivity and ensure future prosperity for us all.