by Gareth Hughes
This is my latest article for Auckland University’s Craccum magazine:
On the spectre of bourgeois opposition to the advancement of the glorious workers advancement struggle.
I probably showed my age in a previous article talking about an old TV show Voltron, but this week I’d like to touch on some other pursuits of the 90s: listening to Nirvana, watching The X Files, and in New Zealand’s case, attacking workers.
The last time we had a National Government in the 1990s it was a sucky time to work. No wonder so many Kiwis listened to depressing grunge music and zoned-out to paranoid conspiracy-theory TV shows. I was in high school then and worked in lowly paid jobs in a supermarket, a fish and chip shop, and I delivered pamphlets with minimal rights. Back then Finance Minister Ruth Richardson carried on the neo-liberal economic orgy of the 80s Labour Government that caused so much pain to New Zealand communities.
Now in a different century with a different National Party we’re seeing the same thing: tax cuts for the rich, beneficiary-bashing, and attacks on workers rights in what Russel Norman, described as “setting employment relations in New Zealand back two decades”.
The current National Government have introduced a raft of unfair changes to industrial relations that will see people pressured to cash up their holidays, fired at will without explanation, and bosses requiring medical certificates for employees who are sick for only one day. Its great news for bad bosses and undermines all of our hard-won employment rights.
Why? Is it because of ideology, to appease big business party donors or simply because they despise workers? I believe it’s because of a misguided belief that by taking away workers’ rights, removing protections, cutting pay, reducing holidays and diminishing access to sick leave is the best way to grow the economy. Just like how they are currently making it harder and more expensive to be a student, it’s just not a smart way to run the economy. I can’t believe they are trying to close the ever widening pay-gap with Australia by paying less to workers!
Last Saturday, the other Green MPs and I joined thousands of Kiwis around the country at the Fairness at Work rallies because we believe everyone deserves a fair go.
When I pushed trolleys at the Gisborne Woolworths I was paid a stink wage. Back then, it was all of $5 an hour. Like today’s minimum wage, it was hard to get by on. In 2008, the Green Party got rid of discriminatory youth rates that saw smaller rates for young workers. Now all workers in New Zealand receive at least $12.75 an hour. In 2010, that won’t even buy half an antique Nirvana CD – this is too low. Earlier this year the hard-hearted Government raised it by only a measly twenty five cents. This doesn’t even keep pace with inflation. We and others called for an increase to $15 minimum wage, which was a start towards a fair wage for everyone.
Another unhealthy approach to employment rights has been the Government’s changes to sick leave. Now an employer can demand a doctors certificate if you are away sick for even one day. It seems a sick joke. What if you have the flu? It’s not really worth the stress, inconvenience and cost of going to the doctor but it’s not a good thing to go into work and spread your germs either. I’m not sure if you’ve been to the doctor recently but often they are totally booked up and not open to appointments on the day. It’s a silly new rule that will benefit bad employers and scare some employees into never taking sick leave, regardless of how sick they actually are.
We hear a lot about the need to boost our productivity to boost our economic growth but we do this not by working more and more for less but by working smarter. It’s important to take a good enough amount of holiday leave so you are fresh, energised and productive at work. Four weeks paid leave a year is fair. This Government has changed the rules to allow employees to give up one week in return for cash. It may seem neutral on the outside but what we’re going to see is bosses pressuring workers to give up a week and it will drive down pay increases economy-wide because employers will say “well, if you need extra cash, don’t go on holiday”.
Probably the biggest and worst change is around the 90 day ‘fire at will’ law. Basically this allows anyone who is employed under the 90 day provision, which will be I imagine the majority of students, to be fired with no explanation and warning. The motivation is to encourage employers to ‘take a punt’ on a risky worker but it’s not fair or conducive to good relationships between employer and employee. If you suffer from this law I’d love to hear your story, like this one shared on Frogblog: “Florence Cohen was sacked from her first job on her 85th day of her 90 day trial period. Her employer had expressed no dissatisfaction with her performance, she was given no reason for her dismissal, and she still doesn’t know today what, if anything, she did wrong.” Many students could end up being treated like Florence if they take on a new job, which is unfair and will drive down wages.
When you look at the bundle of changes, just like in the 90s, another National Government is using the recession and high unemployment rate to attack workers rights, slam the university door on new students and increase the cost of living. Prices for food, transport and electricity are all going up and buckle yourself in, because come October, GST is going up to 15%.
That nice Mr Key didn’t mention all this stuff at that last election. Rather than focus on a fair deal for everyone he seems to be making big changes ‘by and for employers.’ We’re not going to become a prosperous nation by treating our workers unfairly, paying them less and making it a struggle to provide the basics. In taking us back to the 90s this government is as freaky as an X Files episode and as depressing as a Nirvana song.