Saturday 24 July 2010

John Minto: Back to the future for National

By John Minto
from Frontline

The changes to employment law outlined by Prime Minister John Key yesterday are the most significant attack on workers’ rights since National’s last big assault via the 1991 Employment Contracts Act.

From a softly-softly approach to industrial relations John Key has taken off the gloves to deliver a barrage of bare-knuckled blows against workers on the job and their rights to organise together.

None of the changes have come as a result of public concern and we can forget the pathetic spin that workers can opt out of the provision. Key says if workers don’t want the 90 day “sack at will” provision in their contract they can say no. That’s true enough but we all know an employee who refuses to accept the provision won’t get the job.

The main argument in favour of the provision says it will encourage employers to take on staff they wouldn’t otherwise employ. This view is parroted by Business New Zealand as though employers can’t get rid of workers who aren’t up to the job.

Any employee can be sacked for underperformance now but the employer must follow a fair process. Many do but this provision defends and emboldens the worst of employers to behave in even more bullying and draconian ways. I’ve been a union organiser long enough to have seen plenty of bad employers and those who can’t follow a decent process will now be encouraged to continue to do so knowing they will not have to defend their sacking decisions anywhere.

This proposed change, along with the raft of other changes announced yesterday is National Party ideology to extend employer control over their employees. Employers want compliant, docile workers who won’t make a fuss when their rights are abused. Key says most employers are reasonable but this will advantage bad employers - those who can’t be bothered running good policies, those who see workers simply as serfs with no right to dignity or respect in the workplace.

The impact will be widespread. The Labour Department survey released to justify the new policy shows over 20% of workers employed by small employers under the 90 day provision lost their jobs within the 90 days without the employer needing to justify the sacking. Key says this is a success so it is to be implemented for all businesses. Think about this. Every year around 400,000 workers change jobs or are employed for the first time. On the government’s figures 20 percent of this number, or around 80,000 New Zealanders, can expect to lose their jobs without reason or justification within 90 days of starting work.

The other changes are equally obnoxious. They have been decided behind the closed doors of ministerial offices where the likes of the Employers and Manufacturers Association and Business Roundtable acolytes have easy access and find sympathetic ears.

Let’s not pretend the changes are anything other than good old-fashioned worker-bashing by Tory politicians as their strike new blows in the class war.

As billionaire businessman Warren Buffet told the New York Times a few years back “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” Buffet was right and here we have John Key (one of Warren Buffet’s thinkalikes) waging war on behalf of New Zealand employers.

From a worker’s point of view every right they enjoy has been hard won. No employer or government has ever given working people rights without being forced or pressured to do so. And at every opportunity employers strive to remove those rights and National made its surprise attack over the weekend. It’s class war all right.

The most encouraging thing was a big turnout to protest the changes at the National Party conference. All the major unions were represented and with less than 2 days notice the turnout of 300 or so was impressive.

This most recent attack on workers’ rights is to be resisted unlike the last major attack which took place under a newly elected National government and brought us the Employment Contracts Act in 1991. The union leadership at the time, most notably through the so-called communist Ken Douglas, refused to fight and simply lay down in the face of the most vicious attack on workers’ rights for a century.

The Employment Contracts Act made union organising much more difficult. There was a big drop in union membership, national awards disappeared and pay and conditions of employment worsened dramatically as I’ve commented here before in more detail.

While real wages decreased households maintained income by both partners getting jobs and working longer hours for less pay. Workers and the organised union movement have not recovered and are still on the back foot. After reading National’s policy a friend emailed me yesterday with the line “Back to the f****** future”.

But the weekend protest shows lying down is not an option this time.

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