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NZ Engineering Union Conference - Margaret Wilson

Hon Margaret Wilson
Friday 28 July Speech Notes
NZ Engineering, Printing & Manufacturing Union Biennial Conference
Venue: Quality Hotel, Logan Park


I first came into contact with the then Auckland Engineers Union when I was a student. I went to the union offices to get help on a university paper. I made a link which has remained for more than 30 years.

There's been a turnover of 2 or 3 hundred percent or more in your union's leadership since then – but I'm still here.

Last night we farewelled Rex Jones from his present role. I want to repeat the thoughts I expressed then, that Rex Jones has made an outstanding contribution to unionism, to the Labour Movement and to industry in New Zealand. I do not believe we have seen the last of him yet.

Today I want to talk about the legislation which is the first part of this government's programme to reform the New Zealand labour market.

One of the easiest ways to find out what the Employment Relations Bill is all about is to read it. The Bill itself says what it is for

[it] "is based on the understanding that employment is a human relationship involving issues of mutual trust, confidence and fair dealing, and is not simply a contractual, economic exchange. This basis requires specific recognition in any regulation of the relationship – something not satisfactorily achieved by general contract law."

New Zealanders do not want their workplaces to be marketplaces.

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They do not want their labour to bought and sold as if it were a commodity.

New Zealanders believe in the dignity of labour, and the right of employers to expect a fair day's work for a fair day's pay.

They know that employment relationships are not like trade relationships.

They expect there to be institutions capable of helping solve employment problems.

This is the public consensus. It is what New Zealanders voted for at the last election. It is what the Employment Relations Bill will deliver.

The Employment Relations Act is the way of the future.

It will work in practice to build the effective workplaces New Zealand needs to be internationally competitive. It will restore the dignity of labour.

The great fear which has afflicted workplaces since 1991 will be removed.

This fear has existed in some workplaces as a vague apprehension, as a worry about being treated unfairly, or sacked, or mistreated which was not there before.

In others it has been a real, and focussed fear of the loss of conditions, and income, and rights, and dignity, with no ability for defence or even to be listened to.

And in appalling cases this fear has taken the form of actual terror – terror of the harasser, of the bully, of the sweatshop owner.

They have hidden behind the weakness of unions, the inadequacy of institutions, the slowness of justice. They have hidden behind the inhuman atmosphere engendered by the treatment of labour as just one more thing to be bought and sold.

The Department of Labour, a decade after the Employment Contracts Act was passed, finds itself investigating 61 cases of alleged sweatshops, involving 250 workers. In one case the Department reported it found four workers living and working in an unheated garage, sleeping two to a bed, working up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week on piece-work rates.

It is clear that such arrangements are not legal, even under the Employment Contracts Act.

But why is it that people think, in New Zealand, that they can do these things? Why is it that it takes so long for the situation to come to the attention of the Department of Labour even though many people must know something very bad is going on.

How is it possible that workers New Zealand can be employed in such a way that the police consider laying charges of slavery?

I believe that the very bad workplace law we have now, by establishing employment relations on the same basis of simple buying and selling, tells bad employers that exploitation is acceptable.

With better employers seen to treat treating their employees as commodities, these sweatshop owners get the idea that their actions are in some way normal. It's an attitude change we must stop.

The Employment Relations Bill tells employers that workers are not mere production units. It makes it clear that Employment Relations are important human relationships. The parties need to trust each other. And they need to respect each other. And would-be sweatshop owners need to see that the New Zealand way, the New Zealand workplace culture, is absolutely opposed to the evil they intend.

I believe employers have not benefited from the Employment Contracts Act. They may have been able to lower costs, but the Act has made it more difficult to build the deep trust and commitment which are needed for success internationally. As delegates and organisers you will know that employers often hear expressions of commitment and enthusiasm for new projects and practices which are very different from the real feelings of workers. Good Faith relationships are real relationships on which very significant increases in productivity can be founded.

Employers and managers, too, have suffered from the fear associated with the contracting approach to workplaces.

The "We have a problem, let's go to court" approach is not an approach which is in tune with New Zealand culture.

It makes no sense in a New Zealand workplace.

Unionists sometimes don't appreciate the strain and distress which managers feel when formal action is threatened or taken against them.

But unionists do know of the hours of wasted time, and the thousands of wasted dollars involved in the handling of grievances which would have been better settled through a process based on mutual trust and understanding.

You can all think of situations in which the absence of good faith has made litigation necessary – but it is a fact that there are thousands of employers in New Zealand whose employees have never taken action against them.

There are hundreds of thousands of employees who have established good and trusting relationships with their managers and employers. And there are unions – like this one – which have had outstanding success in building long-term relationships with employers.

As an example of this I need go no further than the EPMU's success in maintaining multi-employer contracts under the present law.

But there are thousands of relationships – potentially good, productive relationships – which have been destroyed by a system based on dehumanising the workplace.

The Employment Relations Act will be a very good law.

Good employers need not fear the force of judicial intervention over minor matters.

Employees need not fear for the consequences of expressing their opinions and associating freely with other New Zealanders.

Good faith and the honest and open communication that is its consequence will improve productivity and confidence throughout New Zealand business.

I want to turn now to the campaign against the Bill. It has been well organised and well funded. It has been effective in confusing and misleading the public and even some supporters of the BilI. But it has been enormously satisfying to see the discipline and control exercised by the union movement, even in relation to the parts of the Bill they want to see changed.

The attitude of some of the opponents of change showed that they did not realise the nature of our democracy. The Labour Party and the Alliance and the Greens were elected on platforms which committed each party to change in employment relations. There was overwhelming public support for the changes. We knew, and the public knew, the views of the opponents of change at the time of the election. Parties seeking change were elected.

And we were elected to implement those polices.

We have listened to criticism, the valid and the invalid, and we will support improvements to the Bill. But those who thought that we would not keep to our election policies and would somehow allow the present bad law to stay were wrong. They must have been thinking of some other government, at some other time.

When the bill is reported back to the house, its opponents will as usual offer alternative versions of the truth. On the one hand they will say that the Bill was badly drafted and required lots of changes. Then they'll say we haven't made any changes.

Changes will be made. And they will make the bill better. But the Bill's core provisions will not be changed. For reference, when the Employment Contracts Bill was reported back in 1991, the Chair of the Select Committee, one Max Bradford, told parliament that the select committee was recommending ten major changes to the Bill. There won't be ten major changes to my Bill.

But let me say it again, and let me ask you to report this back to your employers (in good faith of course): The Employment Relations Bill will help business.

Here are some of the improvements over the Employment Contracts Act:

 The new Mediation Service, which will provide rapid, professional support to resolve grievances by agreement before they snowball into costly litigation. It will be fair, fast and free.

 The requirement for unions and management to negotiate in good faith: this promotes responsible unionism and protects employers from unfair negotiating tactics, as well as requiring all employers to respond in good faith

 The even-handed and clear bargaining requirements which will help protect responsible businesses from being undercut by unscrupulous business competitors willing to underpay workers

 Unions will be required to be democratic & accountable to their members.

In addition, as I have said, the government has responded positively to the thoughtful and constructive submissions by business owners, managers, employees and unions seeking improvements in the Bill.

The government has indicated that it will support changes to the Bill.

The changes which can be supported include provisions to ensure that:

 genuine contractors will not become employees. And if another law applies – this law will not override it.

 fixed-term contracts for fixed-term work can continue

 responsible communication from employers to their employees during bargaining will be protected; and day to day communication is enhanced by the good faith provisions. The only communications which are prevented are those which would break the underlying good faith provisions of the law.

 employers will no longer face confusion about their responsibilities to staff in the event of a business sale or merger

 the liability of directors under the Minimum Wage Act and the Holidays Act is limited to those very rare situations in which they have directed or authorised underpayments and the company is insolvent. Proceedings can be actioned only by a Labour Inspector – not by a union or employee.

 confidential information is safe from competitors. In negotiations employers and unions can ask the other party for facts to back up claims.

But if it's not relevant it doesn't have to be revealed. And, if the information is of a commercially sensitive nature, it may be revealed only to an independent, confidential third party – not the union.

Employers, like unions, must bargain in good faith, but in the end the agreement of employers is needed for there to be any change in working conditions.

And unions must win their case and cannot – as in the past – rely on a court to impose decisions on unwilling employers.

Good faith and the honest and open communication that is its consequence will improve productivity and confidence throughout New Zealand business.

Employers face a variety of pressures which do not always encourage them to develop a good working relationship with their employees.

The Bill's provisions are designed to redress inequality, provide a real basis for conducting employment relationships in good faith, and provide problem-solving provisions which are aimed at supporting and maintaining on-going good employment relationships.

A partnership in the employment relationship will enable employers and employees to respect and work co-operatively with each other, to create a productive workplace beneficial to everyone.

I believe the Bill will establish a positive framework to support and maintain such partnerships.

The Employment Relations Act is only one part of the approach this government is taking to ensure that New Zealand has the Labour Market it needs.

In my travels around the country one of the most common issues raised is not the impact of the ERB but how we as a country can ensure that we improve our capacity and retain skilled people and ensure that there are opportunities for them to use their skills.

It is all too often that I hear about skilled people leaving the country or of skilled immigrants not be able to find jobs that make the best use of their talents and experience.

You know that our Occupational Health and Safety Laws are being reviewed in an effort to lessen the dreadful toll of death, injury and misery inflicted on people in workplaces in New Zealand every year.

Our ACC reforms are well advanced.

Our new modern apprenticeship pilot scheme has begun. But still more is needed.

The improvement in workplace relationships and safety are one part of the equation. We also need to improve the way we attract and retain immigrants.

Our education policies from pre-school to tertiary need to be specifically linked to the type of workforce we need. Industry training is the key to success for all business and the government must be prepared to play its part. Our Labour policies need to take into account the changes to our population.

We know, for example, and have known for a long time, that as the baby boomers begin to retire there will be a much smaller proportion of working age people to support them. And it all needs to link to support our overall economic development programme.

And for this government, all this needs to be seen in the light of our commitment to closing the gaps between Maori success in the economy and that of the rest of society.

The number of Maori entering the workforce as a proportion of the total population is increasing dramatically. Many of the "gaps" are gaps in employment, wages, prospects and type of industry. The government is committed to closing the gaps and, eventually, eliminating them.

This government believes that there is a place for unions in all this. Unions are an essential part of democratic life. They empower workers and allow their views to be expressed. They balance the power and influence of the wealthy and allow the dignity of all work to be recognised.

Unions are often universities as well, supporting workers in moving beyond their original craft or trade or profession and into advocacy, planning and organisation. I wonder how many managers there are in workplaces around New Zealand who got their start as a manager by becoming active in union affairs. My guess is that there are many thousands.

And even though unions complain about the boss pinching their people, it's a fact that the communication, thinking and research skills developed through unions are of enormous benefit to employers. It's something that the new education provisions of the Employment Relationships Act will promote.

Congratulations on your success in surviving the last 10 years and emerging stronger. If the EPMU can do as well as it has in promoting professionalism and productive relations with employers under the present law – you will be brilliant under our new law.

That law will soon transform New Zealand workplaces.

The workplaces will be free from fear. And for the first time in a decade - there will be fairness.


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