by Daphna Whitmore
In the run up to the last general election the Labour Party enthusiasts who hold so many of the top posts of unions were giving dire predictions that a National government would take NZ back to the dark ages as far as workers’ rights were concerned.
The Workers Party, in constrast, didn’t think Labour had ushered in a golden age, nor did we think National were planning on a major attack on unions. What was likely, we said, was that it would be business as usual.
The CTU leaders got to hear that from the horse’s mouth when Key spoke at their conference last week.
Key said that in this term there would be no major changes to industrial legislation. Here’s an excerpt from his speech:
“In our first 11 months in office we have progressed two key areas of employment law reform.
The first was the introduction of a 90-day trial period for smaller employers.
I know your unions opposed that law. Well, let me give you my take. I think it’s working. It’s helping to ensure that those on the margins of the workforce, who might otherwise struggle to get a shot at a job, are getting a go.
The Government has also put together a working group to look at how we can make the Holidays Act work better for employers and workers. I’m pleased the CTU is on that working group.
It reports back in December and it’s my hope it will come up with sensible recommendations that will protect workers entitlements while making employers’ obligations clearer.
Beyond these two areas the National Party’s election policy outlined some other possible areas for employment law reform. I know you are keen to hear how that work is progressing.
Again, let me be upfront. I understand the Minister of Labour has taken a first look at these issues. The Cabinet is yet to consider any recommendations however. The fact that these issues have not been progressed more rapidly reflects where they sit in the Government’s agenda - they’re not a driving priority.
That’s not to say the Government is ruling out any future changes to employment law. We are a solutions-focused government, so if we can see employment law is causing serious problems for people, we will be prepared to look at it.
When I travel around the country people do raise employment law concerns with me from time to time. The most common problems they point to are with the confusing aspects of the Holidays Act, the lack of flexibility in the rest and meal breaks legislation and the potential abuse and costly nature of personal grievance processes.
The Government has responded to the first, we are responding to the second, and I’m flagging today that the Minister of Labour will take a look at personal grievance processes as well”.
Key is a pragmatist and has no big union-busting agenda. Even the 90 day legislation, abhorrent as it is, in practical terms has changed very little. There has not been one case of a 90 day sacking that has been brought to the CTU’s attention to be fought and campaigned against. No doubt the sackings are going on, as they did before. But they are in small un-unionised workplaces that tend to be a law unto themselves.
So far, Key has shown that he is not going to be an easy target for his critics in the union movement.
When Labour-sympathisers at the CTU conference growled at Key about conditions for workers in NZ Key pointed out he’s been the PM for a matter of months in a recession, while Labour governed in better economic times. The problems facing workers have been around a lot longer than this National government, he said.
To really attack Key will require a criticism of the economic system, which also requires a criticism of the Labour government.