Helen Kelly: We need proper debate on right to life

Union boss is facing her own struggle with terminal cancer.

CTU boss Helen Kelly says she was upset about the judge’s decision on the late Lecretia Seales’ euthanasia bid – and looks forward to a proper debate on the issue.

However, “I don’t think the judge could have [ruled in her favour], because it might have resulted in the legalised right without the protections of the law and the statutory framework that we need to bring this piece of law into place,” she says.

Ms Kelly has lung cancer, and has been through four rounds of chemotherapy, with which she says she’s “coping very well.”

As her union battles for stronger health and safety legislation, Ms Kelly says there is an irony in the government’s approach to issues of life and death.

“While Lecretia was upstairs arguing for her right to be assisted to die with dignity, we were downstairs arguing with the Crown which had agreed to dismiss the charges against Peter Whittall for killing 29 men at Pike River, and irony was not lost," she says

RAW DATA: Q+A transcript: CTU boss Helen Kelly, Interviewed by Simon Dallow

Watch the interview here

SIMON The bill is now stuck in select committee because the National MPs can’t agree, so there’s caucus in-fighting over that. You fear the bill being watered down. What is your biggest fear here?


HELEN Well, the government has told us they are going to water it down. This is Australian law, where the workplace health and safety accident rate is half of New Zealand. We know it works. Two task forces, not just Pike River but the government’s own task force, recommended this law. One of the big things that they’re proposing is that small businesses, businesses under 20, aren’t required – even as they are under the current law – to have strong worker participation systems, including health and safety reps. And reps have rights. And without reps, then workers lose those rights – the rights to stop dangerous work, the rights to issue infringement notices. Very important.


SIMON But these aren’t difficult propositions for small businesses, are they? Isn’t Judith Collins right when she says we’re a nation of small businesses?


HELEN Well, the narrative is that workers are a problem in health and safety if you believe small businesses shouldn’t have them. And actually, there are hundreds of small businesses operating in and out of Pike River and many of the workers killed in Pike River were working for small businesses. So this idea that workers are a burden, that investing in them, that giving them rights in health and safety is problem rather than a benefit is a very negative one. Many, many accidents happen in small businesses. Our most dangerous industries – construction, forestry, farming – they would benefit from strong worker participation.


SIMON So the forestry and farming side, but these are not small businesses we’re talking about.


HELEN Yes, we are. Most forestry crew are 10, 15 workers.


SIMON Small contractor operations.


HELEN They’re contractors working for big businesses. Now, big businesses are concerned about these changes, because under the new law, they take more responsibility for all of the contractors on their work sites, the person in charge of the business. If small businesses are exempted from some of these provisions, then obviously the responsibility sheets even further up the supply chain and they’ll find themselves being prosecuted even more often.


SIMON This is going to change, though, isn’t it? The National situation is such that this has to change. Are you still confident the legislation will achieve its overall intention?


HELEN No. The current law is stronger than the new law if they make these changes to it and a number of other things that are being-


SIMON So this would be a backward step if it goes through with the changes proposed.


HELEN This would be a backward step, and the Prime Minister promised the Pike families, ‘We will not step backwards.’ Their own taskforce, business people that were on their task force, recommended this law.


SIMON How would it be a backward step?


HELEN Because under the current law, small businesses, if a worker asks they have an employee participation system, including reps, then they have to put one in place. So under the new law, even if a worker asks, the employer can say, ‘No, we’re not having a participation system.’


SIMON In the smaller business environment.


HELEN Under 20. So quite big businesses, actually.


SIMON So you’d rather see nothing happen than a watered-down legislation?


HELEN We would rather see the current law than this new law if it’s watered down as the Minister Michael Woodhouse and John Key are saying it will be.


SIMON What, given the problems with National, do you think is the pragmatic outcome from this?


HELEN Well, I don’t know. But if you think about the problem in New Zealand, it’s not that worker participation is the problem, is it? The problem is that our workplaces are unregulated and dangerous. We’ve got twice the accident rate of Aussie, six times the accident rate of the UK. We have this crisis, we have a task force-


SIMON How do those rates compare to the pre-employment contracts era?


HELEN The accident- health and safety law changed about the same time as the deregulation of the labour market. So we’ve got a combination of poor working conditions, long hours, low pay, little investment in worker training and safety, and then poor health and safety law. Pike was a classic example of that. So good economies have both regulated, the labour market and health and safety. This government has deregulated the labour market as we know, but we want to see the health and safety law passed as was promised, as has been recommended.


SIMON Peter Talley was knighted in the Queen’s Birthday honours for services to business and philanthropy. You’ve objected to this. In terms of ACC payouts to Talley’s workers, there was almost $2 million paid out in 2014; some 1300 workers receiving. Is your objection based on their work practices?


HELEN Yes. My objection is based on my experience with the Talley’s Group of companies, how they treat their workers both industrially and in terms of health and safety. We know many, many, hundreds of meat workers that work in those plants feel oppressed by the working conditions in that plant. We know they locked them all out for 86 days last year. This year they’re trying to cut their take-home weekly pay guarantee by $100 a week, and in the bargaining they’re refusing to settle, trying to get the union to agree to never object to immigration applications in those meat factories…


SIMON Bill English and Peter Dunne leapt to his defence, saying he’s had a long contribution to the industry. Nick Smith said, ‘I’ve been out on Peter Talley’s boats. They’re so much better than any of the boats, particularly the foreign boats.’ So they’re the best boats out there?


HELEN He’s just been prosecuted for the death of a fishing boat worker, and he’s been prosecuted for another, so maybe Nick Smith needs to go back out there and do some of the work on those boats. He’s probably been out on his launch.


SIMON The election review for Labour came out this last week. Leaked. That reflects further dysfunction within Labour doesn’t it?


HELEN Well, I think if you give out a report to what would have been 50 or 60 people, the chances are that it’ll get distributed is quite wide. Labour intended to distribute-


SIMON Not a lot seems to leak out of National.


HELEN Well, the split around health and safety has leaked out of National, what’s gone on in their caucus. That’s actually not true. But the reality is the report says what everybody thought it would say. Labour would have sent it out to all its members. It would have got into the media. I don’t think the issue is the leak. I think the issue is how they respond to them.


SIMON They’ve patent dysfunctionalities, so why can’t Labour get its act together?


HELEN Well, I think it is getting its act together, and I think this report’s taken a long time to come, but it’s got some interesting recommendations in it, which they’ll also consider. But if you have a look at the work it’s doing around housing in Auckland, which is a Labour-led campaign around this crisis, around health and safety, around these issues. I think it is getting its act together.


SIMON Don’t the unions have to accept some responsibility? They came in for a bit of criticism too.


HELEN I think we all have to accept responsibility, yeah-


SIMON What do the unions have to change?


HELEN Well, we’re in the middle of a union change programme. It is my view that because we’ve been driven into this private sector corner, where all of our rights and ability to function have been removed by the various law changes, that unions run the risk of becoming to act like just representing their members. There are thousands of workers out there. The work we’re doing in health and safety, forestry, construction - all of those workers are not in the union. We are beginning to reach out into the community and represent workers more widely.


SIMON One of the criticisms aimed at the unions was that it’s failing to contribute financially.


HELEN Well, most unions are not affiliated to the Labour Party. So, the Council of Trade Unions-


SIMON Most people aren’t affiliated to unions. It’s one in five. Are you still relevant?


HELEN Well, that’s by design, isn’t it? The law is designed to make sure that workers don’t have easy access to unions. And when you talk to forestry workers, and they work in crews of five or 10, you know, they love the fact the unions have stepped into the space, and the accident rate has gone down by 60%. The death rate was 10 last year. There’s been one in the last 14 months. We show unions can be effective, but, actually, it’s very, very difficult for many, many workers to join unions, and that’s by design.


SIMON Does this mean that the days of the unions contributing significantly to party coffers are over?


HELEN Well, most unions have never contributed significantly to party coffers, because, actually, out of the 36 unions affiliated to us, only five are affiliated to the Labour Party, and those are the ones that contribute, and their members democratically vote to be affiliated.


SIMON I have to ask you - you’ve spent your career fighting against what you perceive as unfairness, and now you’ve got a personal fight of your own against what seems to me the ultimate personal unfairness.




SIMON As a non-smoker, getting a diagnosis of lung cancer.


HELEN Well, it’s unfair whether you’re a smoker or a non-smoker, actually. It’s a horrible, horrible disease, and I don’t necessarily want to differentiate between the deserving and the undeserving for lung cancer.


SIMON Oh, not a case of deserving, just, you know, there is an irony. You can laugh about it at this point. You’re smiling about this. How’s the fight going?


HELEN You know, it’s okay. It’s what it is, really, and I’m living every day, and I’m doing my work, and you can see I’m very well.


SIMON You say you’re living, not dying, don’t you?


HELEN I do, yeah, and that’s because I’m very healthy. I’m very grateful for that - to have this period being very healthy. I’ve had four rounds of chemotherapy. I think I’m probably meant to be a bit sicker than I am from that chemo, from the treatment itself. But, actually, I’m coping very well with it.


SIMON This is very awkward, but I have to ask you - what did you make of the decision on the Lecretia Seales euthanasia bid?


HELEN I was upset about it. I mean, I think she’s a very brave woman, and she did a great thing by putting it on the front page. I don’t that the judge could have done what he did, because it might have resulted in the legalised right without the protections of the law and the statutory framework that we need to bring this piece of law into place, and I’m looking forward to a proper debate on it. While Lecretia was upstairs arguing for her right to be assisted to die with dignity, we were downstairs arguing with the Crown who had agreed to dismiss the charges against Peter Whittall for killing 29 men at Pike River, and irony was not lost. Those two cases. One - the Crown arguing that she shouldn’t be able to die with dignity; and downstairs the Crown arguing that Mr Whittall shouldn’t be accountable for the 29 men killed at Pike. And you do begin to question the role of the state when you’re involved in that sort of thing.


SIMON Helen Kelly, thank you so much for joining us on the programme today.



HELEN You’re welcome.

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