top of page

Flex this! Why National/ACT want to axe Fair Pay Agreements...

Updated: Oct 11, 2023

...not to mention bring back the 90-day trial, reverse new sick leave entitlements, freeze minimum wage increases, and give businesses tax and regulation relief...

By Tracey Sharp

Since the Employment Contracts Act eviscerated collective bargaining in 1991, many workers have seen a ‘race to the bottom’ in wages and working conditions in this country. We’ve seen the rise of the ‘working poor’ as working conditions, hard-fought for and hard-won in the last century, were rolled back in this one. For too many people across this motu, work just isn’t working any more.

At its heart, this is about a lack of power; the very real imbalance of power inherent in the working relationship, particularly for unskilled or semi-skilled work that is easily replaceable – by human, robotics or AI.

This type of employment falls particularly heavy onto certain groups - Māori, Pacific peoples, young people, and people with disabilities are over-represented in jobs where low pay, job security, health and safety, and upskilling are significant issues.

Fair Pay Agreements are a step toward addressing systemic weaknesses in the labour market by setting minimum standards across whole industries for a return to decent work – better pay, hours of work, health and safety, training, and worker input in decision-making. In general, it means more secure work (like security of hours, of pay, of tenure) and more protections (like from being fired arbitrarily, or from getting hurt on the job).

So why would any political party want to overturn policies that go (at the very least) some way toward providing workers with decent, life-affirming, work?

Because some parties are solely for business. And because businesses want flexibility. Flexibility to pick up or put down labour when they want to, how they want to, without breaking a sweat. Flexibility is just damn good for business. Just like how exploitation is good for business. And while proponents of flexible labour markets claim they are good for both employer and worker, this simply is not true.

Of course, worker exploitation is not new. Since the factories of industrialisation ‘workers v bosses’ has been one of the main arenas of social conflict. While the 20th century saw a slow clamber toward progressive worker rights under a collectivist banner (to be fair a certain type of worker – typically male, white) the 21st century seems to be circling back toward the precarity of Engel’s day. To work that is short-term, freelance, zero-hour, precarious kinda work. That is insecure, shit-pay for shit-work kinda work.

And non-standard work (is this a whitewash name?) is on the climb. It has been for some time. Not, I would argue, because workers want non-standard work but because the death of collective power (unionism) has allowed it.

Enter The ACT Party, waving the flag to “protect choice and freedom of contract” in the non-standard work economy which, according to them, emerged in “response to the needs of employers, workers, and consumers.” Their Freedom to Contract policies are that ole laissez-faire, government-get-your-mitts-off approach to labour markets – all in the name of economic growth and, wait for it, individual freedom.

If you ask me, the biggest heist of all time was the right-wing heist of the word ‘freedom’.

“The idea of freedom is inspiring. But what does it mean? If you are free in a political sense but have no food, what's that? The freedom to starve?”
― Angela Y. Davis

ACT are all about embracing the gig economy. All hail the gig economy, the bastion of this short-term independent-contract market, which has “created jobs that wouldn’t otherwise exist” and which offers “autonomy and flexibility” for “people who can’t commit to standard hours like students, or parents with young children.”

Roll eyes.

There’s more. According to ACT’s website, “Contracting can be a stopgap between roles or a way to re-enter the job market or to top up earnings from a first job.”

Proponents of the idea that workers should be happy taking any job, regardless of pay or conditions, often say these jobs are a ‘leg up’ on the rung of social mobility. Only they’re not. After three decades of labour markets so flexible that workers have been able to bend right over and take it - it is clear that this type of work is not a ladder to anywhere. It’s more like trying to climb a slippery slope on roller skates.

Unstable, low-paying, unpredictable jobs that leave you not knowing if you'll have enough hours or income to pay your bills next month have no/little social mobility factor. When you're stuck in a job like that you can't save up for further education, invest in your future, or even catch your breath, because you're constantly on the edge of financial disaster. Social mobility? More like social treadmill – you're running fast, but you're not getting anywhere.

And what, I ask, are the shitty conditions of the first job that mean a top-up from a second job is required?

ACT would also overturn the finding that Uber’s independent contractors are in fact employees with rights and protections. Basically, Uber want to contract out of, what should be, a two-way relationship which would demand care for their workers.

E tū Assistant National Secretary Rachel Mackintosh said the decision has wide-reaching implications. “The stakes here are high – no industry is safe from being absorbed into the gig economy and, without decisions like this one, decent work is out of reach for gig workers who have little or no rights and protections.”

To re-cap - voting for National/ACT is a vote for:

1. Diminished job security – reducing labour market regulations reduces security for workers. Easier termination and changes in employment terms puts workers in precarious positions.

2. Weakened collective bargaining – labour unions play a crucial role in advocating for workers’ rights and fair wages. The ACT Party’s emphasis on individual contracts weakens collective bargaining power.

3. Increases in inequality and exploitation – workers will be more vulnerable to exploitation by employers who seek to maximise profits at the expense of the worker

4. Health and Safety issues – labour regulations contribute to improved health and safety standards in the workplace. A reduction could mean reduced well-being for workers.

It would be great if we could assume that companies or business owners will make the right choices for their staff when it comes to liveable wages and just working conditions. But let's not pull punches here - profit is king and the imperative of competition is the crown prince.

With the inherent struggle between business interests and workers' rights, the role of government and collective action becomes paramount. Fair Pay Agreements represent a meaningful step toward rebalancing power dynamics in the labour market, ensuring that work indeed works for everyone.

When you vote, keep these issues in mind. Real freedom means not being forced into work with all the responsibilities and none of the rights. It means being able to utilise the power of collective bargaining to offset the inherent imbalance in the labour relationship. The pursuit of genuine freedom and fairness in the workplace must not be sacrificed for short-term gains in flexibility and profit.

Tracey heads Closing the Gap. She has a Masters in Sociology, and one in Creative Writing. She is a freelance social researcher and writer.


1 Comment

Merrill Hansen
Merrill Hansen
Sep 16, 2023

wonderfully wise description of the dangers in the seduction campaigning to employees to embrace undefined 'freedoms' and little obligations for employers responibilities -

bottom of page