NZ Politics Daily: major victory for low-paid workers

NZ POLITICS DAILY

Dr Bryce Edwards

Dr Jonathan Coleman

Has it become fashionable to support big pay increases for low-paid workers? That’s how it appears, given the almost-blanket positive coverage of the government’s settlement with unions to increase pay for care and support workers in the aged care and disability sectors.

The agreement involves a significant transfer of money to low-paid workers, and potentially has quite a few ramifications for the rest of the labour market. Yet it’s hard to find any criticism or negativity about this landmark win for workers.

Most of the commentary is entirely jubilant and full of praise for the workers who have taken on an industry and economy and won a massive victory, seemingly against the odds. For perhaps the best example of this, see Mark Sainsbury’s Care workers' historic pay rise tempered by decades of exploitation.

Sainsbury says: “This is a historic day. It's not often that more than 50,000 low-income care workers get some good news – a 43% pay rise. But let's be brutally honest – the reason the pay hike is so massive is that these workers were being exploited to begin with.”

He goes on to sing the praises of trade unions (“yes, there is still a vital place for groups representing workers' rights”), and paint the picture of a “David and Goliath battle” in which working class hero, Kristine Bartlett, managed to change history. And although the $2 billion settlement money still has to be found, “that's no excuse for underpaying human beings. We owe so much to Kristine Bartlett and the other cases the Service and Food Workers' Union took on; workers struggling for all those years because of the mentality it was ‘women's work’, doing work we couldn't or wouldn't do, for a pittance.

Positive newspaper editorials
This view seems to be shared by all the main newspapers, who have published strongly supportive editorials today backing the settlement.

The Otago Daily Times says “the settlement remains a giant step towards giving some low-paid New Zealand women (and men) the dignity, respect and financial reward they deserve” – see: A giant step for womankind.

The editorial also sells the settlement as positive for everyone as it is “redistributing the wealth in a more equitable manner. More money to women means more money to families and children (and it is likely to be money spent locally). It also means women have more chance to put money towards vital retirement savings and the like. Surely everybody wins? The message the settlement sends about value (of women, their work and those they look after) reaches far beyond the pay packet.”

Today’s New Zealand Herald editorial says “Nobody will begrudge residential carers the big pay increase agreed yesterday between their union, employers and the government. The carers, predominantly women, provide services to the elderly and disabled that are not always pleasant but need to be performed with patience, compassion, professionalism and a good deal of common sense. On all these requirements they have deserved to be paid much more the minimum wage” – see: Pay equity deal could lift all low incomes.

The editorial even positively suggests that the settlement could have flow-on effects in other sectors, increasing wage rates, and “If the decision starts to lift all low incomes, it will do a great deal of good.”

Todays’ Dominion Post editorial points out that “This is quite simply a huge change in New Zealand's approach to wage setting, and nobody knows where it will lead” but that it is “wholly welcome” – see: Justice for women in the workplace will cost, but it is welcome.

The Press editorial gives a good background explanation of the case, and has a simple message: “It is about whether New Zealanders are paid enough, full stop” – see: Aged care settlement an important pay equity milestone. And it suggests that even more needs to be done: “The settlement does not solve all issues that could be said to fall under the umbrella of pay equity and access to work. There are still barriers to working parents and more attention must be paid to making childcare affordable and easily accessible. Workplaces must become more family-friendly for both men and women.”

A victory to celebrate for the low-paid and exploited
Articles that explain the settlement focus on the difference it will make to those workers – especially women – at the bottom of the labour market. Accounts about the plight of those earning around the minimum wage are an eye-opener. In Audrey Young’s article, I haven't had time to breathe or let it all sink in, says victorious rest home worker Kristine Bartlett, Kristine Bartlett – the aged-care worker taking the original court action against her employer – recounts why this decision “will be a life changer” for the workers.

Bartlett says: "I've seen them come to work sick, they haven't been able to afford to go to doctors, I've seen them walk in the rain, I've seen them come without lunch, and that's what breaks my heart.” And "This case is going to be a big life changer. It is going to let them live with a little bit of dignity and hopefully bring them out of poverty that a lot are in."

Another aged-care worker, Mavis Pearce, is interviewed in Brittany Baker’s 'New era' ushered in with equal pay deal for care workers. She recalls how the low rate of pay has impacted on her life: “It was such a low income that Pearce would often miss meals just to feed her three children”. She says “Nine times out of 10, you'd feed the kids and went without yourself.” See also Cate Broughton’s Pay equity deal a 'monumental step forward' for social justice.

A strange National Party agreement?
National Party blogger David Farrar has suggested that the settlement is “probably the biggest victory for unions in the last 30 years” – see: $2 billion and not one extra service provided. And he’s the unique voice of opposition to the deal, saying “I can’t support something that costs $2 billion and doesn’t result in a single extra person being provided care.”

But it’s Farrar’s own National government that is implementing this huge victory for low-paid workers. So what’s going on?

Left-wing political analyst Gordon Campbell is also bemused by a National government taking such an apparently radical decision, especially one that furthers the goal of gender pay equality: ““Strange indeed to hear a National Prime Minister not only singing the praises of raising the wages of the lowly paid but also preaching that this will enable employers to reap future benefits from reduced staff turnover via upskilling their workers and offering them a viable career path. Wow. Can this really be the same National Party that threw the workforce to the wolves of the free market when it championed the Employment Contracts Act? Can it be the same National Party whose first act after winning the 2008 election was to scrap the pay equity unit within the Labour Department? Similarly, wasn’t it an incoming National government that began its term of office in 1990 by scrapping the Employment Equity Act that had allowed for intersectoral pay comparisons?” – see: On the aged-care settlement.

Campbell suggests that the answer may be that this sort of settlement could only actually occur under a National government: “Perhaps only a centre-right government could have pulled off the politics of this large pay rise to workers in the aged care, disability care and home support sector. (A Labour government would have been accused of colluding with its union mates, and of recklessly putting the economy at risk for ideological reasons.)”

National’s unusual move is also examined by Audrey Young, who says “It's National, but not as we know it”, and asks: “So what motivated National, the party of the bosses, to give some of the lowest paid workers $2.048 billion over five years? And how did the least militant action by a union result in the biggest win in living memory?” – see: A stunning deal that fits the times.

She suggests that National had options to fight the claim, but “That would have been unacceptable to many in the cabinet, not least because of the essential truth of the claim.” Young points to the likelihood of “Paula Bennett, Judith Collins or Anne Tolley” leading the charge for these low paid women in the caucus, and against the ideology of market forces that has made these workers poorly paid.

She also argues National’s pay equity settlement can be understood within New Zealand’s political culture, which she says is about rectifying inequities: “These days, in a country where addressing grievances is part of the core of what we are, it would have been unacceptable to have either ignored the grievance going through the courts or to have overridden it with law.”

Young also praises the union movement: “The government had the good fortune to be dealing with a realistic and smart union. The activism over decades by feminists and unionists helped to shift views about women in unions, women as workers, and pay equity.” Furthermore: “The union was not hung up on dealing with National or back pay. It was not hung up on only union members getting the benefits. The result was the best evidence of the best that unions can do.”

In line with this, Claire Trevett reports that Prime Minister Bill English “acknowledged the unions for a ‘constructive approach’ in what he described as tough negotiations and said the increases were just reward for a dedicated workforce which had been underpaid in the past” – see: Prime Minister Bill English warns other health workers not to expect pay hikes after careworkers' pay equity victory.

And writing for NBR, Rob Hosking suggests that the settlement shows just how much this government has moved away from an earlier neoliberal labour market approach – see: What to worry about from the $2b pay equity settlement (paywalled).

Hosking says: “Tripartite negotiations of the kind normally associated with the drag-down, late-night-whisky-and-sausage-roll meetings in the Prime Minister's office back in the 1970s have been going on in those back rooms for some time. While these talks were not quite as crudely political as the days in which Sir Robert Muldoon and the Federation of Labour president of the day would emerge and blurrily insult each other for the cameras, there is certainly a sense in this settlement of the government taking a much more hands-on approach to such matters than has been the norm for a generation. And this, really, is the most significant part of the announcement by Prime Minister Bill English and Health Minister Jonathan Coleman yesterday. The government is engaging in something of a ‘back to the future’ approach to such negotiations.”

What’s more, there seems to be a surprising degree of positivity about the settlement from private sector – see Aimee Shaw’s Government funding for healthcare workers welcomed.

Finally, for some serious satire about these issues, see my blog post of Cartoons about pay equity in New Zealand.  


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9 Comments & Questions

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Commentators seem to have forgotten there is an election on 23 September.

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Labour could have righted this wrong at any time when it was in power. That it choose not to just goes to highlight that the current Party is no friend of the worker.

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Dead right. I expect the Labour party to soon start doing what they have always done in the past when in opposition, promise the world, and then doing exactly the opposite if they do get into power. As for saying that they won't put the pension age up to 67. I don't believe them one little bit.

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The action was brought by the union five years ago. The party in power at that point in time was National.

Hope that clarifies things.

But hey, always good to make things about the 'wrong team'!

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Real wages have been declining for almost 4 decades and those at the lowest end of the scale have borne the brunt without sufficient clout (or savvy?) to negotiate better rates.

It should also be remembered that many of these positions have only recently transitioned from entirely voluntary work performed by (former?) charities to the corporate free-for-all that now represents 'aged-care' industry. Also the traditional role of the woman in a family unit as the house-maker was only recognised relatively recently as requiring financial recompense, for example by way of divorce court proceedings.

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National ceased to have any resemblance to the historic National Party of the right centre after Bill English assumed the opposition leadership in 2002 and any effective right wing movements and factions. The current "national party' is so far left that it supports everybody passing secondary school exams ( regardless of the fact that 50-70% of the NZ male students are too thick to think or reason and are clearly not wanted by tourist employers, who alway improve overseas imports or attractive girls) and basically supports the long held extreme view of many doctors that a Cuban style medical system works and would be desirable here.
In NZ pay relativities are extraordianarily unbalanced , well qualified teachers are very poorly paid compared with low talent police and second line nurses. Auckland bus drivers get a very bad deal so the money can be spent on new train lines at three times the cost of light rail. Naval and Air Force ratings appear to be paid 50% less than junior police.
Overseas this sort of nonsense resulted in Trump., Farange, Brexit and even Le Pen

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It also seems to have encouraged the educational sector to move so far toward being 'businesses' that students are being passed and given degrees where they shouldn't be (but they paid a lot of money!), ultimately devaluing degrees at the same time as saddling young Kiwis with large amounts of debt.

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I suspect that Mr Bennett is implying that my degrees aren't worth much, and that Mr Bennett is part of the general National party line that those who write dissenting blog and articles in opposition to National Party defence and education policy are neither journalists or qualified.
I actually have 4 degrees- a BA from Vic, Wgtn 1978 ( awarded 1979) a 2/2 Political Science MA from Canterbury (awarded 1982) a B.Com from Canterbury 2005 in Accountancy (awarded 2006) which mainly includes Stage 3 Vic Economics ( Law of Economics and Labour Economics and I also attempted Bertrams paper- narowly failing but only attending a handful of lectures and the exam) and Commercial Law and the ACCY papers were Hamptons Compettiion Law and deceased Prof June Pallot's paper. After achieving a bridging admission , by achieving an A in Cold War History taught by a professor from Oberon University in Ohio I did a second honours degree in 2006 withour much inspirtation or effort, as it seemed to me Professor Mein Smith regarded me as one of the misguided idiots, who caused the nuclear free impasse and to me the Professor and her staff were largely swayed by the views of Australian academics and MFAT staff. I was downgraded ( twice) to 3rd class B-/B- in the Research paper and the Rise of Fascism Papers and C grade in Germany 1944-48 and the History Theory paper which I admittedly attended only sporadically arriving at 9am after a night of clubbing and in the related work treating the Palestianian cause with contempt.. it would have to be said their was some point being their, that year as it was last year History honours was mainly about military and political history with a large class of almost entirely beauftiful females quite a few from the former GDR, and former Russian Republics , only a couple of other males survived the course. The distraction of sitting behind booted Grace Edwards and the mindblowing diplomatic trainee from Dresden, was considerable and often rather unbearable so I retired to the pub or my flat and there was the added difficulty that following my mothers advice, i'd smashed my ten pairs of spectacles and did the course technically blind. ( my mother though I would be vastly better looking without specs , as she viewed myopia as a psychological problem). There are somewhat similar reasons why I failed second year law , three times. I mean on the first day in a class of 200, Ms Terry Witters ( I'm not implying any relationship ) sat down beside me and Mrs Moana Cole ( she was only my lawyer ) introduced herself to me so I trated in being impressive in debate, or counter argument rather than the rigorous rote learning really required for all but genuises to actually pass in law - although modern public law is loaded in favour of the female mind. In the word of Phillip Joseph- the marks depend on how you say it. An answer which is clumsy will be failed even if says the same thing as an A anwer. Or as Mein Smith said the marks are 90% presentational, and that is how you allocate your time,for a perfectly polished grammatically perfect essay. We don't expect any orginal contribution from you. Given that sort of attitude I was clearly in the wrong country.
After I completed my BA I was shortlisted for jobs in Trade and Industry after failing to get that or advisory officer positions in the MOT in 1978-79 I was not really interested in Jobs in Wellington although I applied for many. I had been a student in Welington in 1978-79 and the awful climate and lack of any sophisticated nightlife or bars let alone bar/cafes you could go to at night alone - meant I found the place a dismal stalanist shit hole which was far more backward in its intense socialism and conservative attitudes to social activities than the rest of NZ. I came from a fairly rich NZ family and my sisters and I were more followers of the chrisie Hyde, Keith Richards and Sex Pistols, Punk attitude of avoiding work as much as possible given the generous public services in NZ and the ready availabity of extremely highly paid holiday and part time work. I mean the sort of holiday jobs I did as a Waterside Commssion caretaker or post office coder duirng computerisation paid huge money- vastly more than a Clerks pay and would finance a comfortable life fory about 3 years for 3mths work. Evenutally one signed up for the benefit about 1982 because intersperspersed with journalism work gave the opportunity of entry both in NZ and Australia at the time to highly paid government work and contract work ( the subsidy PEP jobs created by Muldoon did not just create opportunities for low paid gangs to get manual jobs they also offered positions equivalent to high level government graduate work and te possiblity of full time work in those fields. During the 1980s I had patches of bad health with meant I was AWOL and also many of the jobs I applied for I such as those in MOD I had no interest in but applied to please family and editors.

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Nah, mate. Wrong end of the stick.

Point was: turning universities from being about research and education into being about being an "export" business - and the compromises that seem to be being made when everything is about attracting more money and 'growth' - undermines the core value proposition of a university. Every time someone sees a student being passed who shouldn't be, the perceived value of the degree to is lessened.

But...could I facetiously ask, in four degrees, did they not once require the use of paragraphs for the sake of clarity?

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