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On The Nation: Workers' Rights Panel

On The Nation: Workers' Rights Panel

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Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Jackie Blue says NZ could close the gender pay gap within 10 years and should make that our goal. She says a good start would be requiring companies with more than 250 employees to publish their gender pay gaps, as is done in the UK.

CTU president Richard Wagstaff says any new government needs to focus more an workplace safety and increase funding for Worksafe.

Employment lawyer Hazel Armstrong says NZ is under regulated when it comes to health and safety in the workplace. she says we need more standards around things like hours of work, fatigue and working outside in bad weather if we are to reduce workplace injuries and deaths.

Wagstaff and Armstrong also say hundreds of people die every year from occupational disease such as cancer. Armstrong also says GPs and hospital doctors need to have more awareness of the issue and to ask more questions about causation.

Lisa Owen: Joining me now are CTU president Richard Wagstaff, Equal Employment Opportunities commissioner Jackie Blue, and employment lawyer Hazel Armstrong. Good morning to you all. Hazel, if I can come to you first, Helen Kelly was really concerned about injuries and deaths in the farming area. This year – I had a look – we’ve had eight deaths so far, 29 notifiable injuries. What’s killing people on our farms?
Hazel Armstrong: Quad bikes, mainly. She also had a very strong focus on forestry, and we’ve had five deaths there. So just in those two industries, you’ve got quite a considerable number of people dying, and they’re brutal deaths, they’re harsh deaths, and often the people are on their own when they die. So she was wanting the industries to take responsibility, particularly about regulating quad bikes and also regulating conditions in forestry, and it hasn’t happened. She’s quite right; there’s been no movement at all in the farm sector, a bit – a bit – in forestry.
Well, let’s talk about farming first. Why? Why no movement?
Armstrong: Fiercely independent, I would say, the farmers. They don’t want to have the nanny state intruding, and the last thing they want is to be told how to do their business. But, in fact, actually, they’re killing themselves and their kids, so maybe they need to be told.
So, you mentioned forestry there – five deaths already. Now, that’s already more than in the whole of last year – four deaths last year. Why are we going backwards in forestry, then?
Armstrong: Well, there’s an intensification of work. More people are out there working very hard. We’ve still got no regulations around hours of work. We’ve got no regulations about working in the wet or the cold or the heat. So not much has changed. And when the foot went off the neck, cos Helen Kelly really kept a spotlight on forestry, and when she died and Worksafe stepped away, they just went back to their old tricks.
Richard Wagstaff: I think too the thing to remember is that fatalities are tragic, but it’s the tip of the iceberg. For every person killed – and there’s like 50 killed a year in New Zealand – seven times that are badly hurt. And when I mean ‘badly hurt’, I’m talking about losing limbs, severe brain damage and so on. So you’ve got whole families, you’ve got lives turned upside down, chronic pain. So really, our fatality situation’s tragic, but our injury rate on top of that tells an even bigger picture, a worse picture.
In saying that, though, the government set a target, which was to reduce workplace deaths by 25% by 2020. We’re already there. So what do we need to do? Aim higher and set a new target?
Wagstaff: I think so. The target they’ve set still leaves us looking pretty bad by international standards. And I don’t think just a ‘softly, softly’ thing; we need to be shaken out of our complacency, and that’s what Helen did. She put the spotlight on a record that we have that we were just sort of cruising along with and not really addressing hard enough. And I think we need to keep our foot on the pedal, as Hazel said, our foot on the throat to–
Armstrong: Well, I think also that if you take the averages, that’s one way. But if you look at different sectors, like farming and forestry, it’s not looking so good. So those industries in New Zealand, which I use the word ‘they’re fiercely independent’; they don’t want anyone interfering, there’s still the same problem there.
Jackie, I’m wondering, would we be doing more about this if the victims were in jobs that were more valued? So let’s say we had five nurses die in one yearor we had five teachers killed in one year. Would we be doing more?
Jackie Blue: I suspect you’re right, Lisa. I also think a fact in the forestry deaths is that they have very low rates of unionisation. They don’t have anyone speaking for them. There’s no voice for forestry workers. And I listened to an interview Helen did a year before she died, and she said she got to know the forestry workers, and once they understood the concept of a union, they wanted to be part of one.
Wagstaff: And I think that’s right. I mean, I know the nurses union, the teachers union, certainly wouldn’t sit back and let those kinds of deaths happen in their industry, and that’s a vital part of the whole social dialogue that’s missing in these workplaces. There’s really no opportunity for these workers to push back and say, ‘It’s not safe here. We need to not just focus on production. We need to put a bit more focus on the workforce.’ But there is no real voice in those workplaces if they don’t have the support of a union and can work together to stand up for themselves.
OK. Well, the thing is we’re in a position now where we’re going to get a different version of government. No matter what happens, there is going to be a slightly different make-up in our government. So what are your wants or expectations, then, if this is still happening and not enough is being done?
Wagstaff: Well, on health and safety, we would like to see a real step-up in attitude on it. We’d like better resourcing for Worksafe. We’d like, you know, just basically a higher set of aspirations. But I think–
So you’d like the budget to be upped?
Wagstaff: Yeah, for Worksafe, absolutely. And there needs to be a greater presence of this issue. But there’s a lot more problems than just health and safety for working people. We’re optimistic that we can solve them, but, you know, we’ve got real problems with wages; we’ve got real problems with productivity; we’ve got real problems with the culture of work that people are in. Workplaces aren’t going as good as they should be in New Zealand.
All right. I want to move on to some of that shortly, but beforehand, you’re also worried about deaths from occupational diseases, aren’t you? So what are you talking about, and how common are they?
Armstrong: Well, can I answer that?
Wagstaff: Sure
Armstrong: So, the main one that people go to their GP about or the hospitals notice is an asbestos-related disease. But when you start talking about cancers – liver cancers, kidney cancers, skin cancers, even – there’s very low awareness in the medical profession about asking that next question – what was the cause? Was it occupational? So we have a huge job to do in turning around the medical profession to look at causation.
How many are you talking about, in terms of deaths a year, do you think are attributable to this?
Armstrong: Well, the figures are very high – two in 500.
Wagstaff: Yeah. It dwarfs the actual fatalities.
So do we record this? Should we record it?
Wagstaff: We could do better on recording it. I mean, one of the things is the lag. People got asbestos poisoning and infection a long time ago, and now we’re reading the problems now.
Blue: It takes decades to show.
Wagstaff: And you have industries that promote these products, a bit like tobacco, who are in denial about the effects for a long time. So it takes a long time. So we still have asbestos in New Zealand. We don’t have a register of asbestos in New Zealand where we should have. There’s a lot to do on that issue as well.
OK. I want to move on to pay equity. Jackie, the Ministry for Women has research showing that 60% to 80% of the gender pay gap cannot be put down to things like skill levels or education. So how much of that is sexism, do you think?
Blue: I think the research in New Zealand has shown that up to 80% of the gender pay gap is due to unconscious bias and often some behaviours and choices women make. But unconscious bias is huge and needs to be addressed.
And that’s sexism by another name, isn’t it?
Blue: Absolutely.
Yeah. And the gap is worst at the top end, which I found really interesting – the top end of the market – so here’s the conundrum – given that you’ve got more men at the top of the market, how do you make them pay women equally?
Blue: Well, you need pay equally legislation, you need some principles around how you pay men and women in all sorts of occupations, whether it’s mixed or predominantly women. There’s current legislation in parliament, which will be mixed up by the next government. That legislation could be world-leading, but unfortunately it doesn’t stay true to the joint working group principles that were agreed and widely-claimed.
So what you’re saying is we’re not tough enough.
Blue: Not tough enough. We need pay transparency. People have no idea if they’re being paid fairly if they don’t know others are being paid, so we need some mechanism so people can find that out.
Yeah. I want to talk a bit about that too, but, Hazel, in your profession – law – it’s one of the worst offenders. I mean, if I look at 2015’s statistics, women made up about 60% of employees in law firms, but only 26% of the directors. So, what’s going on in the law profession?
Armstrong: My own view is that when you’re a young woman, the hours of work that they – employers, the male-dominated employers – expect of you is too hard. So in my firm, I’m a partner in my own firm, because I couldn’t work those hours and bring up a family. So we just have a system of five billable hours, but in the big firms they’re expecting their young staff to do eight billable hours, which means you work between 12 and 13 hours a day, and you can’t do that. So it’s not a work life balance. And it’s also that the culture in some of those firms is too competitive and not friendly.
Wagstaff: There’s another issue too. It’s that most people don’t get to negotiate their employment agreements or have any sense of transparency, and so, what people are paid has been imposed by their employer with no negotiation and it’s secret. So people don’t actually know what other people are being paid. And occasionally, it comes out in the media that there’s a massive pay rise for Fonterra chief or something like that, but most of the time, people are unaware. You’ll see that in Hollywood. You’re unaware of the huge gap that exists.
So around there, Jackie, because that’s what you were alluding to, we shied away from making private companies disclose their pay gap. As we discussed, there’s potentially new opportunities with a different configuration of government. Either way, what would you like to see? Quotas or?
Blue: Quotas would be a last resort. But we certainly need to have that discussion. It’s not scary. It does happen in some Nordic countries, and life goes on as we know it.
Then why are people so freaked out by it?
Blue: Well, I really get upset when I hear the argument against quotas – ‘Oh, we’re just going to bring through inferior women’. Because those people fail to realise the unconscious bias that women face in actually progressing through the ranks. And then there’s the ‘We appoint on merit’ type of argument. That is common. Whose definition of merit are they using? As Hazel said, the white male-dominated definition of merit. They define the skill-set. And like chooses like, so it’s really hard for women. So sometimes you really need to disrupt to force change, and you can do that through quotas, and then maybe relax and take quotas away and let the natural selection happen.
Would you be urging the new government to look at quotas?
Blue: No. And the first instance- As I say, it’s a discussion for last resort. I would, in the first instance, want New Zealand government to follow the UK model, where companies of over 250 employees have to publish their gender pay gaps and bonus gaps. That would be a good starting point. And having good pay equal legislation and pay transparency would help all of that as well.
So you’d like that looked at again because it was dismissed in recent-
Blue: The bill is still going through select committee, and the select committee have yet to hear it. There’s still opportunity for amendments, but its current form-
Wagstaff: That bill was squeezed through using Peter Dunne and Act Party. The fact is that Tracey Martin spoke very strongly against it. Jacinda Ardern spoke very strongly against it. Jan Logie spoke very strongly against it.
So have another go at it – is that what you’re saying, Richard?
Wagstaff: Well, it’s a betrayal of the joint working group that was worked up by business, government and unions. Basically Woodhouse introduced a bill that betrayed the principles of pay equity. We don’t believe we could’ve achieved support to a billion-dollar deal if we had had that legislation.
OK. So to be clear – whoever is in charge, when it happens, you would like them to have another crack at-?
Wagstaff: Oh, absolutely. Definitely. Jacinda said we should go back to the ’72 act and amend it as the joint working group proposed. We would support that, cos it’s really gone off track. And that would be a tragedy, I think. We’ve finally made some ground for- I know the high-paid women are very important, but there’s too many women on the minimum wage or just above it. They really need support of decent legislation, so we can do industry-based settlements.
OK. Paula Bennett has said she wants us to be the first country to wipe out the gender pay gap. And we’ve had a drop – we’re down to 8% from 12% in the past year. But last time I had you on, you said it’s probably 30-40 years away, possibly 100.
Blue: Yep. Yeah, basically-
What’s realistic? What’s a realistic time frame to achieve that goal? Whoever is doing it, what’s realistic? Can we do it in 10 years?
Blue: Yes. We can and we should, otherwise it’s going to take 30 years.
Is that your challenge?
Blue: Yes. And the downward blip we had this year, great, but it’s been see-sawing all over the place in the last decade or more, and the trend is going to be 30 years before we close the gap.
So should that be this country’s goal – 10 years to pay equity?
Blue: Yes. Why not?
Wagstaff: And the union would sign up to that. We’d invite business and government to join us. That’s something we should do as a nation. We should set targets for this and work through how we get there from here.
All right. The other thing about equity is you have called before for any government to have a 50/50 split of women and men in Cabinet. Now, the government has a target for state sector boards and committees, but not one for its own Cabinet.
Blue: No, I know. And just for the slight reshuffle, it happened a few months ago, it went up to 38%, and it really takes just one or two more women and you’re going to have a 50% gender balance.
But both of the main party leaders have said ‘Uh-uh. No. Not doing a 50/50. Not promising you 50/50.’
Blue: Well, I think the Labour party will be close. They’ve really got a gender balance at the moment, so they wouldn’t be too far away from getting a gender balanced Cabinet.
Their front bench only 1% better than Nationals, so it’s only about 35-35% of women represented. So would you lay down that challenge again?
Blue: I would, absolutely. Absolutely all the time.
Hazel, it took a court case to get care workers pay equity, so do you think that employers respond better to stick than carrot?
Armstrong: Well, the experience in forestry, if I use that as an example, is, yes, we need a bit more stick there, because Michael Woodhouse said, ‘OK, we want to give the industry the opportunity to sort itself out.’ And actually, it hasn’t. Five deaths is five deaths too many. So I think we do need more stick. I noticed Richard talking about industry standards. I think we need some industry health and safety standards in forestry that are better than what we’ve got now.
Wagstaff: I think the thing is, we’ve got to be careful not to generalise too much. So there are some really good employers out there, and there are some others on the spectrum, and a whole lot of in between. But generally our business culture doesn’t really support people joining in union. They don’t really welcome people to join and speak up and push back when they need to. We have variable wages. We went down a track of low wage, low skill, low productivity economy in the early ‘90s. We haven’t really bounced back from that yet, and that’s really where the crucial challenge is, was we see it.
But on the issue of health and safety, you would probably appreciate that a lot of talk, even in workplaces I’m involved in and been in, is people go, ‘Ugh, it’s PC gone mad. You can’t do anything without filling out a form any more.’ What’s your response to that?
Armstrong: Yeah. My response to that – I’m very cynical, actually, about that kind of statement, because New Zealand is very unregulated. So if you’re out in the forestry, there is no standard around hours of work, there’s no standard around fatigue, there’s no standard around whether it’s too hot, too cold, or too wet or too windy.
So you think we’re under regulated?
Armstrong: Yes, I do.
Wagstaff: I think the other thing too is that what you’ll find in unionised workplaces is that the union has those compensations for the workers. You look at Kiwirail. Done great stuff – winning awards for participation of workers in making their workplace, because when workers relate and talk with each other, ‘How do we make this place work the way we want it to work?’ Well, they’ll quickly say, ‘We want it to be a safe workplace. We want it to be a successful workplace. We want to be successful in it.’ And they can join in and reinforce each other’s behaviour, and will stand up to each other and say, ‘You’re not working safely here.’ But when we have a culture which is ‘Do what you’re told, and don’t talk to each other’, which is essentially 4/5 of New Zealand workplaces under individual agreements. There are some good employers, but there’s a lot of employers in that space like we saw with Savemart recently – if you try and join a union, you’re thrown out of work. So we’ve really got to change some fundamental attitudes there. But, as I said, there are some places – Kiwirail, Air New Zealand’s doing great stuff – that’s seeing unions in their work forces as a real opportunity, rather than a threat. That’s where we’ve got to go.
Armstrong: Can I make one more point?
Yeah, very quickly, Hazel.
Armstrong: You make a very good point. I went to British Columbia to look at what was happening with forestry workers there – 50% unionisation, and in their collective agreements, all of the things that I talked about there.
All right. It’s very interesting to talk to you all this morning. Thanks for coming in.

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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