It is vital that there is balance in the relationships between employers, shareholders and employees; between retailers and wholesalers; between companies and customers; and between lobbyists and the Governments. As soon as one party becomes too strong then the economy as a whole suffers, either because the resources are miss or underused, or one party has too much influence on the laws that are created.
An era of a balanced economy
From the mid-thirties for 30 years our Governments made rules to ensure that there was a balance between the power of employers, shareholders and employees.
The first (Savage) Labour Government from 1935 introduced and/or reinforced worker protections including the 40 hour week, penal rates for overtime and weekend work, minimum wages, and workplace safety.
Some of the incredible extent of the reforms in the workplace, economy, health, education and welfare can be seen here.
Until the changes introduced by Neo-liberalism in the mid 1980’s, workers enjoyed working conditions and pay that were second to none and our people a level of equality that we wish we still had.
Flexible working conditions (or creating imbalances)
Hubbard, James, 1949- : Scientists give chill warnings on climate. 3 April 2011. Hubbard, James, 1949- :[Digital caricatures and cartoons published from 1999-2005, and from 2008 onward]. Ref: DCDL-0017482. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22908944
Union power was severely undercut by the introduction of the ‘permanent unemployment policy’ by the Reserve Bank, under the fourth (Lange) Labour Government. This had ensured a progressively lower wage economy through deliberate unemployment.
National Party’s Employment Contracts Act 1991 was sold as a model for flexible labour market legislation. It severely reduced the power of Unions further, and allowed a negotiated minimum code of wages and conditions.
Some provisions were replaced by the later (Clark) Labour’s Employment Relations Act 2000 but they failed to return the protections to the levels held before the 1991 act and they did not curb the impact on wages of the Reserve Bank’s targets.
National passed the 2008 Employment Relations Amendment Act which eroded worker rights further during the first 90 days of employment and the current Government has new legislation in the pipeline.
Dominion post (Newspaper). Fletcher, David 1952- :”We need to make these labour laws even more flexible.” … 10 June 2011. Fletcher, David, 1952- :[Digital cartoons published from 2001 onward]. Ref: DCDL-0018032. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23259161
State created unemployment since the mid-eighties, individual (rather than collective) contracts, and de-regulation of health and safety rules has led to a working environment where changes can be virtually imposed at will by employers.
Over the years penalty payments for weekends and extra hours were removed, lunch and other breaks were eroded or became unpaid, and staff were increasingly working closer to 60 hour weeks. Even when penalty payments are still to be paid, some employers appear to manipulate their contracts to avoid even paying that! The introduction of targets, which was imposed on staff as a “rewards” based system, quickly proved to be a means to bully staff into working longer hours without pay or justify non-payment of bonuses or pay rises. Stress levels have increased to a degree that some performance targets make staff’s failure to cope with stress a reason for a “fail”!
With the power of the Union hamstrung by legislation, the power of the individual in negotiations is non-existent.
Arrogance of management
By relying on self-regulation as the means to ensure worker health and safety, in an environment where Employers have become so powerful as to be able to regularly ignore workers’ demands in negotiations or their concerns day to day, has led to a very dangerous situation. Rebecca Macfie (author of Tragedy at Pike River Mine: How and why 29 men died) said, “There’s an arrogance about management that I think is revealed in this story that is a lesson for everybody. In many ways Pike isn’t that different from plenty of other organisations.”
Otago daily times (Newspaper). Tremain, Garrick 1941- :’Have you noticed the only way the word “mine” is never used is when discussing responsibility?’ 16 February. Tremain, Garrick, 1941-:[Digital cartoons published in the Otago Daily Times from December 2004 onward]. Ref: DCDL-0020263. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/30654364
Effect on worker pay and conditions
If you have been working for more than 10 years then I don’t need to say anything. Regardless of where you work or what you do, you will have probably found the same: Longer hours, increased workloads, greater stress, tougher targets, increased rules on sick leave, greater job insecurity, and little or no pay increases.
In the engine room of NZ… 12 March 2009. Emmerson, Rod, 1955- :[Digital cartoons published 3 July 2005 onwards in the New Zealand Herald.]. Ref: DCDL-0015067. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23185042
During the same time your employer will likely have seen regular profits for the executive staff and shareholders. In some cases earning millions of dollars but being ‘too poor’ to pay regular staff even inflation linked pay rises.
With increasing numbers of casual contracts and “negotiated” standard employment contracts with reduced rights and pay levels below a liveable wage, and the constant fear of losing the few jobs available, our Governments have created a modern day form of indentured labour and serfdom.
Reducing Inequality through Employment Laws
If we want workers to have the levels of health and safety protections, and a greater share of the economic rewards for the fruits of their combined labour, then a future Social Democrat Government cannot simply tweak the current Employment legislation.
The Government needs to look back at the legislation of the first Labour Government and see how they can place it in a modern context. Flexibility needs to be balanced with fairness and safety, Employer power with Union power, and worker pay with profit.
The greatest strength currently for an individual to improve their working conditions and pay is not to “negotiate” with their employer, but to ensure that they (and all their friends and whanau) vote for such a Government in September!