Monday, 28 October 2013

labour day reflections

must be time for another labour day post.

i promised myself that i would do nothing productive this weekend, and apart from a bit of stuff catching up on emails this evening, i've pretty much stuck to that.  having had a pretty hectic year, i really needed the break.  time to relax, to day-dream, to just not worry about anything much at all.  it was lovely.

but i can't let the day go without acknowledging why we have it.  3 news did a nice little clip today, except that it was pretty depressing so few people knew the history behind labour day.  so here's some:

Labour Day commemorates the struggle for an eight-hour working day. New Zealand workers were among the first in the world to claim this right when, in 1840, the carpenter Samuel Parnell won an eight-hour day in Wellington. Labour Day was first celebrated in New Zealand on 28 October 1890, when several thousand trade union members and supporters attended parades in the main centres. Government employees were given the day off to attend the parades and many businesses closed for at least part of the day.

i'll leave you to read the rest by clicking through.  it's a day for commemorating rights in the workplace, except in recent times it's more appropriate to think about rights that have been lost. we no longer have an 8-hour working day, that went with the employment contracts act back in 1991. at that time we also lost award rates that ensured decent wages across various industries, we lost overtime pay.

the damage done to unions has meant that the rights to collective bargaining have been eroded. there is plenty of evidence that unionised workers have better pay and conditions than non-unionised workers, and that the efforts put in by unions benefit non-unionised workers as well.  for example:

Their findings on wage settlements for the last year are startling. For those agreements for which they could calculate an increase from June 2009 to June 2010 (some for example don’t specify a wage rate, or don’t have a preceding agreement to calculate an increase from) adult minimum wages in collectives went up by an "annualised" rate of 4.2 percent – the largest they have ever reported. It compares with an increase over the same period of 1.6 percent in the Labour Cost Index (LCI)and 2.1 percent in the average wage, both of which include non-unionised workers and unionised workers on individual agreements. Given that all collectives are union collectives, that’s a strong message about the success of both unions and collectives. Of course, collectives have other improved conditions too, and help to lock in improved conditions (if explicitly included) despite law changes.

current legislation before the house seeks to further erode those rights. if you want to get details about the proposed changes in the employment relations amendment bill, check out the factsheets on the sidebar of the CTU website.  or if you prefer to listen than to read, here's helen kelly explaining the proposed changes:

if you're in for some heavy reading, check out the human rights commission's submission - you can find a link here.  and if not, here's a summary from the bottom of a 3news piece:

The EPMU says the bill will allow employers to:
  • Refuse to negotiate a collective agreement with their employees
  • Pay new workers less than the rate in the collective agreement
  • Opt out of industry agreements in order to undercut their competitors on wages
  • Deny workers meal and rest breaks
  • Reduce the wages and conditions of vulnerable workers such as cleaners when taking over a new contract
  • Dock the pay of workers taking partial strike action
  • Impose more restrictions on the right to strike
  • Refuse to provide employees the information they need to challenge an unfair redundancy or dismissal.
so on a day when we should be celebrating hard-won rights, i think it's also appropriate to reflect on what we're about to lose and to think about vulnerable workers on low pay and the lack of ability to fight for a better deal.

migrant workers are particularly vulnerable, especially those whose residency status depends on their job.  in recent times, i've found out just how vulnerable young workers are.  if they are under 15, there are no terms and conditions, no minimum wage, really nothing at all to stop employers exploiting workers under 15.  and they certainly do.

so much of the damage and the erosion of work rights can be found in the prevailing attitude that a job is a privilege, rather than a human right.  yet this country signed up to the universal declaration of human rights, as have so many countries across the world, and it's right there in article 23:
(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
the thing is that, as the first 3news clip i linked to above shows, so many people don't know the history of work or the history of unions and the struggle for workers rights.  it's not something that's taught at school, it's not something that is passed on through popular culture.  that there are people in the workforce today who don't know that there was once a different way to organise work, a way that ensured much less inequality, much less poverty and a better standard of living across the board, well it's just sad.

it's up to us to keep reminding people about work rights, and about the erosion that is currently proposed.  it's why i'm really looking forward to the taku manawa project i'm doing in conjunction with the young workers resource centre.  it's not much, but at least it will provide just a little bit of education for some young people in the city.

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