The Guardian 9 November, 2005

A warning from NZ

The 10th Congress of the Communist Party of Australia was pleased to have as a guest Comrade Dale Frew from the Socialist Party of Aotearoa. Based in Christchurch, Dale was a Union Official between 1982 and 1992 of first the Butchers and Graziers Union and then Timber Workers Union. Whilst Branch Secretary of the Timber Workers Union the National Party Government brought in the Employment Contracts Act (ECA), a model of Industrial Relations legislation similar to that being introduced by the Howard Government in Australia today. Howard is pursuing a less direct approach. Dale tells The Guardian what the legislation meant to trade unions and how the new laws affected New Zealand's workforce.

Dale Frew: In that ten-year period I worked under three different sets of industrial relations laws. We started with the Labour Relations Act, which had been in force for a hundred years. Then we had the Industrial Relations Act and then the Employment Contracts Act (ECA) introduced by the National Party.

As soon as workers were handed new contracts under the ECA they contacted the union to have them negotiated as collective agreements. However, that legislation also stripped unions of all their members overnight.

The area I covered as an official was probably 600 kilometres across covering 200 worksites. So it was impossible for the unions to go back to every single workplace and sign up every single worker again and then negotiate their contracts for them.

The big sites and the well-organised ones were the ones we concentrated on first mainly because we needed those numbers to sustain the union. However, by the time we got around to the smaller workplaces we had lost a lot of membership because they had already been forced to sign individual contracts.

At the same time as this, the Government attacked the welfare system.

They cut the unemployment benefit by $20 a week on average. They increased the waiting period for unemployment benefits: if you left your job or got sacked or you were made redundant, you couldn't get a benefit for six months.

So of course, when the employer came along and said, "here's a contract sign it or you don't have a job", workers had to sign it because they knew that otherwise they would have no income at all for the next six months.

Guardian: Were there changes in the way the minimum wage was determined?

DF: Under the Employment Contracts Act there was still the minimum wage but it was so low and it was an arbitrary figure.

G: Who would determine that?

DF: It was determined by Parliament. And of course at that time the Nationals were in government. Another affect has been that since the national Awards were done away with big pay discrepancies have developed between different regions of the country.

G: What about things like minimum annual leave, sick leave or long service leave. What protections were there?

DF: There was the Holiday Act which only gave workers three weeks annual leave a year and our public holidays. There were also five days of official leave, which included sick leave and bereavement leave.

But it immediately did away with overtime and penalty rates, so people were working 50 hours a week, 60 hours a week for their flat hourly rate.

We are seeing a lot more shift work more 12-hour shifts, broken shifts and rotating shift work.

G: Do you get a lot of casualisation with people just on call waiting and hoping?

DF: In some industries, yes. Retail for instance, has been casualised very severely. There have always been casual workers in that industry, but at least before everyone got penalty rates for working on the weekend that doesn't happen anymore.

We've even had examples of managers encouraging their secondary school students to take time off school to come into work.

Another serious change in conditions is that it is now common practice for the workers to have to supply their own safety equipment.

G: Can you give an example of that?

DF: Safety Boots is a prime example. In the construction industry people have to supply their own equipment such as hardhat, earmuffs and safety goggles everything.

I worked in the construction industry before I became a union official and all safety gear was supplied by the employer even the clothing. Now that responsibility has been put back onto the employee.

G: Once a workplace was signed up on individual contracts, how did that affect the union's ability to then come back in and represent those workers?

DF: Under the ECA unions got mentioned about twice and that was only where certain rights were being repealed. The legislation instead started talking about "bargaining agents" as opposed to unions.

And that's had a flow-on effect on to all who are working in the area of industrial relations. So you no longer have union officials they call themselves "bargaining agents". This has been a major philosophical change, and it's affected the class consciousness of the trade union movement.

G: Are the unions carrying out their traditional roles or are they just bargaining agents?

DF: It varies. Some unions still have a class consciousness and get out there and organise their membership and deal with social issues as well. Others just go and sign the members up, negotiate a contract and then send the member a newspaper every so often.

G: Has there been an emergence of private, non-union bargaining agents?

DF: The current legislation allows for private bargaining agents so there's being quite a rise in that. You are getting a lot of lawyers and some ex-union officials doing that. And the lawyers will charge a hefty fee to negotiate.

G: What about the ability of unions to operate onsite at a workplace?

DF: Well, things like Right of Access technically still existed. We had to demand entry to see the workers, the employer then always had the right to say: "no you can't come in, it's not convenient".

On one job I had the employer said, "you can come in" and we arranged a time. I thought I had a nice bit of a victory because he was a bit of a rogue employer. However, when I arrived that afternoon I found that he had given the workers paid time off as I'm pulling up there's all the workers walking off.

I have to admit some did stay behind and listen to what we had to say. But we probably only got a quarter of the workforce there.

There was another change if the workers went on strike the employer then had the right to go and employ replacement staff.

Of course there were picket lines but the police were always called in to bust them. It got the police more involved with industrial relations. In the past the police always had the right to do that but they were reluctant to get involved in industrial disputes suddenly they were a lot more willing to use their powers. On a number of occasions it got very nasty.

In one instance I tried to gain access to a work site and I was threatened by the employer. I went to the police and the senior superintendent; but he openly said that the employer has the right to use whatever force they deem as reasonable to remove you from their property. It made things quite clear what side of the fence they were on this time.

G: So when you had a change of government did you have many of your previous rights and conditions restored?

DF: Not immediately, no. We have regained some rights under the last six years of Labour Government, but they're still minimal. We are finally going to get four weeks' annual leave from April next year, and they are bringing in paid maternity leave. But it's still a hard struggle.

G: But they haven't tackled the question of individual contracts?

DF: Not significantly, no.

G: What do you see as the main issues now?

DF: Probably the hourly rate and the safety equipment.

G: Is there anything else worth commenting on or lessons we can learn from it all?

DF: I guess the biggest lesson is don't get complacent even if you are on a well-organised worksite.

If you hare a highly-skilled worker in an industry where there is a labour shortage then you might be OK. But this has the potential to dramatically affect the lives of low-skilled and less organised workers, particularly in the retail industry.

G: Do you feel that the union movement is getting back to anything like its former strength?

DF: We've got a long way to go. A very long way to go.

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