Workers’ safety paramount
Speech International Workers' Memorial Day
Rt Hon Winston Peters
New Zealand First Leader
28 APRIL 2015
Speech by New Zealand First Leader and Member of Parliament for Northland, Rt Hon Winston Peters
International Workers’ Memorial Day Service
Maritime Transport Union
11.45am, 28th April, 2015
Workers’ safety paramount
Thank you for inviting me to speak today on the occasion of International Workers’ Memorial Day.
The measure of any country is how it treats its workers.
New Zealand, from its days of industrialism relied on the hard graft of the ordinary worker to break in the land and build the infrastructure.
But it was early days and they relied on their wits, driven by the necessity of hard times to get things done.
Slowly, and with the advent of the first Liberal government in the 1890s and the workers standing up for themselves, the protections at the workplace became everyone’s concern and we were world leaders in developing strong safety laws.
But anyone with a memory of what the workplace was like in the 60s and 70s will remember that on the pretext of safety the pendulum had gone too far and many unprofitable influences began to shape New Zealand business where safety of the workers was not the paramount concern of certain industrial behaviour.
However, today that pendulum has gone far too far in the wrong direction. There have been frequent attempts to undermine workers’ rights, not just in health and safety, but in their hours and their wages.
This undermining of the rights of workers in New Zealand has seen wholesale immigration being used as part of the attack on sound industrial relations law and safety practices. For example, what reasonable employer or government could contemplate zero hour contracts? What stable family, community or society could possibly result from such a law change?
What employer would think their daughter or son is going to have a stable married life, home life, or for that matter any sense of security going into the future, when they have no idea from day to day or week to week how many paid hours of work they are going to receive. Or do they contemplate that the taxpayers will make up the difference in gross inadequacies of weekly income.
And further, the lack of morning tea breaks means longer hours, which brings tiredness and exhaustion. And inevitably accidents.
What government with any understanding of the essential elements of a good society would allow this? After all, the eight hour day was born in New Zealand - it’s one reason Kiwi workers have been saved from injury and death in the workplace.
In New Zealand we have learned some very harsh lessons around the rush to allow governments, money and bad corporations to undermine safety laws.
We need look no further than Pike River. This was a lesson in corporate greed and irresponsibility. What is known internationally as the ugly face of capitalism.
A company that did not have enough in the coffers to buy the best equipment, and develop the mine to a superior stage before it started bringing out coal.
Its desperation to turn a profit pushed the mine development ahead at an unacceptable speed. Men worked there despite the lack of an alternative escape route. That is a stark reminder to us all that they took those jobs, perhaps not realising the risk, but it was the government’s job in their safety laws to assess that risk and put in place protections for that workplace.
The company was helped along in its fateful effort by the neo-liberalism that took over in the mid-1980s, and then the National government took up the sledgehammer and demolished workplace protections and set out to destroy the power of even responsible unions.
Out went the safety inspectors’ checks, inspections which could close down a mine if anything was seen to suggest unsafe practices or a potentially threatening scenario. Those in charge of the inspections did not even have the specialist knowledge in underground mining.
By the time of the Pike River tragedy there were only two hard working mine inspectors for the whole country.
The responsibility for this lies with the National Government of the 1990s that allowed this to happen, that allowed, by changing the building laws, rotten homes and schools to be built and then changed the maritime rules which made the Rena disaster an inevitability.
But in the case of the West Coast, what is incomprehensible about the build up to the Pike River tragedy is that this province had experienced disastrous mine explosions and deaths over decades.
It was from those tragedies that mine safety developed only to be taken away by politicians and bureaucrats.
These are the very institutions that have also run down our railways. There has been non-stop slashing and burning since NZ Rail was sold in July 1993.
KiwiRail, run broke and then bought back by the government, is again being rundown and cutbacks continue. Job losses have been extreme and the maintenance of provincial services ignored.
Any worker faced by the loss of their job, in a market where there are too few other work opportunities, will be obliged to do the unthinkable and lower their standards as the company demands. And then out goes safety.
As said earlier, we have the hiring of migrant workers; from countries where workers have no knowledge of what was once New Zealand’s enviable safety standards. It’s too easy for employers to turn a blind eye to their conditions by allowing agencies to do all the hiring and signing of contracts.
The profit mantra is overriding basic rights to decent working conditions and safety at work in far too many work places.
Sound industrial relations law ensures absolute fairness between employer and employee, between boss and worker.
Sound safety work practices should be part of that law.
Every reasonable worker knows a company needs to make a profit to survive, and Kiwi workers are keen to get the company there, but they should not be paying with their lives.
New Zealand workers work the second longest hours in the whole of the OECD. They are snapped up by employers in Australia, the UK and elsewhere.
All workers and all employers deserve a safe workplace.
It is unacceptable that so many workers around the world die on the job. New Zealand is one country that must be on guard so that we continue to strive for high standards in all workplaces.
Today is a day to remember all those workers who have paid with the lives, and those who have been hurt on the job.