- Don Franks
For those of us in the working class, few things are more important than having a real job. A real job produces stable predictable earnings. It pays enough for us to support ourselves and our dependants, with a bit left over for some luxuries, savings and fun. A real job is also a big part of our social life. For many people their workplace is a sort of secondary family; in some cases the community of an individual’s job provides their main social connections. In every case a proper job gives us a feeling of social worth, a feeling that we belong, and that we count for something because others count on us.
But today for many New Zealanders a “job” means only a tenuous on call connection with no guaranteed hours. A “job” where you wait idle and unpaid until the phone call when the bosses want you. With that sort of “job” it isn¹t possible to plan a normal and stable life, let alone plan for the care of dependants. Under those circumstances workers often must have more than one “job”, even up to three or four.
Organised workers in many industries have fought long and hard against casualisation and its effects. A good example of this can be seen in a report from the Service and Food Workers Union magazine:
“The casualisation of work in many sectors and industries in New Zealand has been a major concern for unions over the last few years. Many SFWU members in the food processing sector are worried about how their employer is using temporary workers instead of hiring full-time permanent staff. Workers are also worried the poor conditions offered to temp workers and the lack of job security.
Recently, SFWU members at Griffins ETA in Auckland have been on a recruitment drive to get temporary workers to join the union and air their issues. This month Griffins WIRI members recruited 46 workers and are now seeking to elect a delegate from amongst them to represent the issues of temps.
Employers argue that temp workers are good because they can be brought in when permanent staff need a break or are sick, however on some union food sites the ratio of casual staff to permanent staff is creeping up. On some sites one third of the workers are casuals or temporary workers.
The following points have been raised by temp workers at recent union meetings.
* We need to talk with and organise temporary workers on our union sites.
* Temporary workers are not the people that the union needs to be
criticising. Criticism needs to be levelled at the employer for hiring temp staff and trying to undermine hard-won working conditions for unionised, permanent staff.
* There is goodwill from union delegates and workmates who feel their temporary workmates are getting a unfair deal.
* Temp workers want to join the union so they can address the issues they have with job-security etc…Including temp workers with permanent workers in the union has led to a feeling of stronger unity on the job at food work sites”.
- Our Voice, Winter 2004
When safely out of government Labour MPs sometimes tut tut about workplace casualisation:
“Labour’s Steve Maharey contends that the jobs that are appearing are “McJobs” - the ones that are insecure, part-time, low-paid, low-skilled, no training given and “with no real future” for the people who are working in them.”
- The Dominion, 17/5/95)
Now, thirteen years later, after 9 years in government and scratching for workers votes in the coming election, Labour has made noises about taking some action on casualisation.
Employment protections for temporary and casual workers are to be strengthened under proposed changes to the Employment Relations Act, Labour Minister Trevor Mallard announced in a press release last June.
“The proposed changes demonstrate once again our government¹s commitment to protecting the most vulnerable members of the workforce and to providing an employment environment that is conducive to all parties conducting their relationship in good faith.
“Under the changes, the Department of Labour will develop a Code of Employment Practice for Casual and Non-Standard Employment which will make it easier for employers to understand and comply with their obligations to casual and temporary workers.
“The code is also expected to help employees understand what they are entitled to by law.
“An awareness-raising campaign that aims to increase workers¹ knowledge of their statutory rights in the workplace is also planned.
“At present, only the Employment Relations Authority and the Employment Court have the power to decide whether an employee has a fixed term contract or is actually a permanent employee. An amendment to the Employment Relations Act will extend this power to labour inspectors, giving employers and employees a simpler process for confirming their status,” Trevor Mallard said.
The Government minister’s announcement was warmly welcomed by the countries top union leader.
“The rights at work for casual workers are about to get better, and no party should stand it the way of this much needed law change,” Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly said.
Describing the proposed law changes as “extremely significant and important,” Helen Kelly went on to sketch out a good description of casual work in New Zealand.
“There is an army of casual employees, often low paid workers, many of whom are totally insecure about their terms of employment, their hours of work, their entitlements to sick leave and holidays and their employment status in relation to any workplace problems.” “The insecurity of their employment makes it difficult for them to assert their rights, and also effects many other aspects of their lives in areas like housing stability, access to loans and superannuation savings.”
But then the CTU President dropped the ball, by accepting the practice of casualisation, adding: “Of course there are instances of genuine casuals where the arrangements are necessary in normal business operations.” That comment not only undermines workers constant struggle for real jobs. It also negates current CTU policy, which clearly states:
“That casualisation of working hours should be opposed and legislation should entitle part time workers to a basic minimum number of hours pay per day”. (From the CTU policy book, produced November 2000.)
The Labour government casualisation legislation praised by Kelly provides an extra avenue for long serving contract workers to argue that they are entitled to permanent status. That may help improve the condition of some fixed term contract workers at the higher end of the job market.
The suggested provisions won’t in any way assist the “army of casual employees” that Helen Kelly accurately described in her own press release.
Thousands of low paid casual workers waiting for the phone to ring won’t be any better off under Labour’s new law.
As long as capitalism exists there will be legal and illegal pressure from employers to impose casualisation on workers. Instead of praising the government for pre election window dressing we need struggle to keep organising casuals and demanding that they get real jobs, and not low paid irregular soul destroying bit work.