Continuing with the New Zealand employers’ labour-flexibilisation drive, Prime Minister John Key has announced the introduction of a 90-day probationary employment bill that will allow new workers to be sacked without appeal, and it will come into force in March 2009.
What it means for workers
Those whose conditions will be directly attacked are the employees who are or will be in their first 90 days of employment at firms employing less than 20 people.
Slightly more than 30% of employees are employed in firms with less than 20 employees. The Council of Trade Unions has observed that of all employees, approximately 100,000 are in the first 90 days of employment, with a small employer, at any one time.
At the introduction of the probationary period slightly under one-third of new workers will have lesser conditions imposed on them. New employees will form a greater proportion of the workforce as a result of the higher labour mobility created by the probationary period.
While this is significant in terms of loss of rights, lowering of workers expectations over time, and the production of more class differentiation across the workforces of different sectors, other
sections of the workforce are being indirectly attacked as a collective. The probation period will produce a general downwards shift in an environment that already has a low level of job security.
What it means for employers
While the majority of workers are employed by firms with more than 20 employees, the majority of enterprises employ less than 20 workers. Over 90% of enterprises employ less than 10 people. At the expense of workers employed by small firms, the probationary period will hugely benefit these small capitalists who have increased their influence in the employers’ associations.
Due to the competition that exists between capitalists it is likely that larger firms, including monopolies, will soon move into lobbying for the probationary employment periods to be extended to their own list of anti-worker rights. They were defeated when National’s former Industrial Relations spokesperson Wayne Mapp failed to pass the original version of this bill in parliament in July 2006. It may not be until National’s second term that an extension to 90-
day coverage is sought, but the new `softer version’ 90-day bill is likely to be the thin end of the wedge. The left cannot be lenient on small capitalists. With larger business interests, they have a common interest in driving down workers’ conditions.
The Labour Party’s role
Inside and outside of government the Labour Party has shown a general opposition to the introduction of a 90-day probationary period. Correctly, Labour Party opposition leader Phil Goff has criticised John Key for putting parliament into urgency in order to pass the 90-day bill and other legislation.
However, the left should not help translate Labour’s position into political support for them. There has been a proliferation of casualisation/flexibilisation during the last nine years of Labour
government. Unregulated franchises and temping agencies, for example, have flourished. Restructures, partial redundancies, and closures have characterised the last period of the fifth Labour government, so much so that they had to enter debates with National over schemes for laid-off workers. When in power, Labour kept many of the features of National’s Employment Contracts Act and it is likely Labour will either completely fail to repeal future National Party legislation, or will only make minor amendments.
The passing of the 90-day bill should help cement broader ideas for the workers’ movement. Sections of the working class that are not directly affected by changes must, in their own interests, defend the sections that will be affected. There should be no political leniency for the section of small capitalists that can function as the Trojan horse for bigger interests. There should be no cultivation of support for Labour despite its better position on this particular issue.
Coupled with the crisis in the financial sector, the introduction of legislation such as the 90-day bill forms a basis for genuine and immediate socialist and left-union intervention in the industrial arena. Heightened awareness amongst working people, and the inability of bourgeois parties and many top union leaders to fight it out on the pavement, makes it possible for the socialist left to play a key role in a generalised fight-back against sackings, partial redundancies, and closures. Pickets, strikes, and occupations are being put on the agenda.