Friday, October 29, 2010

Back to the Bad Old Days?

When discussing industrial relations much is made of the ”bad old days” in the 1970s and 1980s when industrial unrest was at a particularly high level and major projects could suffer long delays as a result. What is often forgotten is the other side of the bad old days – the Muldoon National government's use of legislation to deal with pretty much any dispute that gained political prominence or which could be used for a bit of pre-election union bashing. Labour was not entirely innocent of these tactics either, the Harbour Pilotage Emergency Act 1974 comes to mind. However compared to Muldoon Labour weren’t really in the game. Apart from virtually constant wage regulation there was the legislation on union membership ballots and especially those bits of it intended to make balloting virtually impossible-the excuse used to make the Clerical Workers’ Union compulsorily voluntary just before an election - and the Whangarei Refinery Expansion Projects Disputes Act 1984 to force a return to work in a long running dispute at a major oil refinery construction project. Threats to legislate and threats to declare a state of emergency under the Public Safety Conservation Act 1932 were used by the National Government on several occasions.

One positive thing that can be said for the ECA, and which was also true for the ERA during Labour’s period in government, was that once a legislative model was developed the government stood back and left the parties to sort things out for themselves. The epithet “Sideline Stan” might not have been intended to be complimentary when describing a former minister of labour but it pretty much summed up the approach of governments for two decades. It was an approach that removed special pleading and parties attempting to resort to one-sided political-legislative solutions to get their own way. One might not have liked the law but it operated as the law should operate. Legislative intervention during this period was confined to reforms based on genuine problems and aimed at a general solution – one technical amendment only to the ECA and amendments to the ERA focussed on matters such as clarifying the scope of good faith. Even the more focussed reforms such as transfer of undertakings and rest breaks were of application to broad groups of workers.

The Key National government has abandoned this approach and the law is again prey to special bidding and the interests of National’s mates. Generally this legislation is being passed not because of need but either to solve, largely imaginary, short term issues or for pure political benefit. To wit:

  • The Jackson-Warner Brothers appeasement Act: neither needed or desirable. The objectives wanted by these actors (term used deliberately) were easily achievable under existing law.
  • The abandoned Bill (although now in the ER Amendment Bill) to remove rest breaks for workers because civil aviation would apparently come to a standstill last year if it wasn’t passed. I have been away so I might have missed the chaos!
  • Proposed amendments to the PG provisions: not needed as the law is perfectly satisfactory. Seems to have been placed in the ER Bill, following a very dodgy piece of DoL “research”, for no other reason than to pander to the misunderstandings of small employers who can’t be bothered to understand basic employment law.
  • Union access provisions: promised by National but drafted to allow delay to access to undermine both union membership and bargaining.

Labour law now seems to be open to the highest bidder and the loudest right-wing voice – and bugger the workers who are now locked out of the process. John Key’s collaborative approach was pretty short-lived.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"I want it all" (with apologies to Queen)

I haven't blogged for a while being in Glasgow but some issues cry out for comment.

"I want it all" pretty much sums up the attitude of New Zealand "icon" Peter Jackson. Happy to make films here if he get massive tax breaks unavailable to other businesses and labour law is changed to allow US-style employment at will. Paul Roth's comments about banana republics will have considerable truth if the government caves into these demands. Even for a National government one might have thought it would be a step to far to deny workers the rights in core ILO conventions to which New Zealand is a party-apparently not!

It is perhaps to be expected that many people are not fully conversant with New Zealand's labour law but to see a statement such as the following in a major newspaper beggars belief (well not really given the Herald's usual anti-worker stance)

"Some film workers work as contractors, meaning they can have significant tax breaks and can set their own terms and conditions".

Tax breaks maybe - although how significant is debatable- but "can set their own conditions": Joe or Jane Blogs who hold the microphone normally walk into Warner Bros and tell them what conditions they will work under - YEH RIGHT. Joe and Jane do not set their own conditions, they take what they are given and like it or lump it. Employees may have limited bargaining power but statutory protections such as good faith requirements do place some requirements on employers to negotiate. And if later Joe and Jane don't like it, or the movie moguls don't like them they are down the road. No personal grievance rights, no good faith, no explanation required, nothing. You're a commodity in this world mate and we don't need you/found a cheaper one.

The difference between contractors who work for predominately one employer and employees is pure legal form and has nothing to do with economic reality. It is a device to avoid the obligations of being an employer. That is why the Authority and courts are told to look at the real relationship.

And lets try and be a bit realistic-apart from avoiding personal grievance obligations, minimum holidays and the minimum wage and the dangers of collective bargaining (ie by workers-no problem with capital being collectivised in a company) anything you can do with a contractor can be done with employees - flexible hours, part-time, fixed term or whatever, on call employment and so on.

And perhaps more to the point as Paul Roth pointed out yesterday, if the contract makes it clear that you have agreed to be contractor it is unlikely that the Authority or Court will find that you are not- the law doesn't need changing. Peter Jackson and Warner Bros need to hire a lawyer and get them to write a clear contract - just like other businesses do.

John Key should try acting as Prime Minister and restore some national (small 'n') pride. With a big 'N' it is going down the drain - "Mexicans with cellphones" is insulting to both Mexicans and New Zealanders.

The sad thing is that a significant number of workers' jobs depend on the outcome of this dispute-yep workers, be they employees or contractors. These workers have been sitting around in limbo for many months as the moguls decide whether or not to film, whether or not to come to New Zealand etc. They deserve better and it is understandable they look to blame the union who seems to have upset an apple cart. However nothing of any significance has changed in labour law since the days of Lord of the Rings except to worker's detriment, 90 day trial periods and all that. They would do better and look at where the real problem lies-and it is not Australia or at the CTU.