I aten’t dead

April 2017: a hell of a month offline, so damned quiet around here. But I’ve managed to do a bit of writing elsewhere, so don’t fret!

Today at The Spinoff: Enough bullshit. After all these years the Pike River families deserve answers

Something you notice about with the Pike crew is how they speak in the abstract. “Our boys.” “Our men.” It’s a natural coping mechanism. No one could survive six years with no closure, no justice, and very little hope, feeling every bit of the grief you’re entitled to when your husband or son goes to work one day and never comes home. Fighting just to get a basic investigation of the crime scene where he died, and accountability from the people whose inaction or negligence or outright greed killed him.

I got involved early with Stand With Pike, by virtue of being the closest millennial to hand when the crew were trying to get the word out about their picket, battling West Coast cellphone drop-outs and Facebook’s clunky Page Manager app. Contrary to the fever-dreams of Matthew Hooton, I’m not paid for it. It’s just the right thing to do. Because it’s so counter to every value I hold, that after six years, no one has been really held to account for letting 29 men die. Anna and Sonya and Dean and the others should not still be fighting for answers and justice. They should never have had to fight for it at all.

And a few weeks back at Overland: In New Zealand, where abortion is still a crime

Today, getting an abortion in New Zealand can involve five separate medical appointments: the initial pregnancy test and referral to an abortion provider (if your doctor provides referrals), two appointments with certifying consultants (if they both approve you), an initial consultation at the abortion clinic, and the procedure itself. …

In the 1970s, the Sisters Overseas Service helped fly women who wanted an abortion to New South Wales. We like to think those days are behind us, but in 2013, a young woman from Wellington was reduced to crowdfunding $7,000 to fly to Melbourne for hers.

How have we let this go on?

Back to the keyboard …

Who wouldn’t want ambulance drivers to be safe and healthy at work?

St John ambulance drivers aren’t asking for much: regular breaks, fair pay, and not being sent out on their own to deal with dangerous or violent patients.

But that’s apparently too much for St John – a charitable organisation whose values include “doing the right thing” and being “straight up” – who have not only taken legal steps to close down collective bargaining, but docked workers’ pay 10% for taking industrial action.

Let’s be really crystal clear here – we’re not talking about strike action. Ambulance drivers who are members of FIRST Union are still showing up to work on time and getting the job done. They’re just wearing a t-shirt that says “Healthy ambos save lives” while they do it.

Side note: what is with some employers and a kneejerk hatred of cool union t-shirts?

What’s struck me is the number of comments I see from people – “ordinary” New Zealanders, if you like; people who don’t spend nearly as much time as you or I nerding out about politics – asking how this is legal. This can’t be okay, surely? How can the boss take 10% of your pay just because you’re wearing a silly t-shirt?

Well … no one likes to hear “I told you so.” But here we are.

In 2013 the National-led government introduced the Employment Relations Amendment Bill. Among other things, it included:

  • docking pay 10% for industrial action – if an employer couldn’t be bothered figuring out the proportion of work being affected by, say, an overtime ban (or, perhaps, just punishing workers for wearing t-shirts!)
  • making it easier for employers to walk away from collective bargaining and industry-wide agreements, which maintain basic standards of pay and conditions and stop cowboy operators undercutting everyone else by paying poverty wages
  • removing mandatory minimum rest breaks and giving almost all the power to the employer to decide what a “reasonable” break would look like
  • weakening protections for workers like cleaning and catering staff, whose jobs might get taken over by new contractors who want to pay them less
  • tightening the rules around strikes so bosses’ lawyers can tie unions up in legal action for months over a typo.

The law weakened the position of workers and their unions, and strengthened the ability for dirtbag employers to be dirtbags. That’s precisely what it was designed to do.

And of course there was resistance. Thousands of people rallied in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch against the bill. There were submissions, and op eds, and public speak-outs.

And National did what they have done so well for eight years: they dodged the issues. When unions pointed out that this law would remove the right to a rest break, Simon Bridges said “It’s about flexibility, we can’t have teachers and air traffic controllers just walking off the job to have a cup of tea, can we?” – as though this answered the question, as though this would ever happen. When unions pointed out people could be disadvantaged by not being on the collective agreement for the first 30 days in their new job, Michael Woodhouse said “It’s about fairness!” – as though it’s fair to expect someone new to the job and new to the company to know what to expect, what to negotiate for. As though 90% of employers bother to genuinely negotiate individual agreements with workers who don’t join the union.

Maybe unions could have done a better job talking about these issues. Maybe the media could have done a better job getting government ministers to actually answer the questions put to them (instead of, say, using a workers’ rally to attack Grant Robertson for being gay, as occurred in one particularly shameless piece).

The point now is that the industrial action being taken by people who do an incredibly important job, driving bloody ambulances, is making many people realise how broken employment relations are in New Zealand. Yes, folks: your employer can dock your pay 10% because you and your coworkers stand together and wear union t-shirts while doing your jobs. That’s not fair. That’s not about flexibility. That’s not something we like to think of happening in our country.

So tell St John. Tell every employer who tries to walk away from the bargaining table when they don’t like people taking a stand for health and safety and decent work: it’s not on. It’s not how we do things. And tell the politicians, too. Because laws change when we make them change.

Hamfisted health and safety for the sake of National’s pork barrel

I’m sorry, I simply couldn’t resist the potential for porcine punnery on this one, inspired by Bill Rosenberg’s comments on Stuff. A good headline sells a story – and that’s what we’re seeing with the latest hapless chapter of Michael Woodhouse’s tenure as Minister of Workplace Relations.

Thanks to apparent machinations from the Collins faction of the National caucus, Woodhouse is trying to sell a watered-down piece of health and safety legislation as the real thing. (Dammit, should have done a homeopathy headline, the #Twitterati love mocking homeopathy!)

Take it away, Patrick Gower:

Three words that no Cabinet minister can ever want attached to high-profile legislation: “joke”, “madness” and “botch”.

I know some lefties who are concerned about the focus on the sillier aspects – the fact that worm farms are being classed as high risk isn’t actually the problem, the fact that dairy farms aren’t being classed as high risk is, despite being the sites of a huge proportion of workplace accidents.

worms world party

Besides, worms can be violent, man.

But the silliness is an important part of the story. This government has passed many a law which was poorly-thought-through, ineffective, inconsistent, or based on bad political policy. They weren’t PR disasters because they’re too complex, too difficult to explain in the one-sentence intro to an article. Experts shouting technical jargon at each other doesn’t make good TV.

Worm farms are high risk? Now that people can wrap their heads around while they’re eating their dinner (assuming you don’t suffer from a strong visual imagination, in which case thinking about worms while you’re eating spag bol might not be a great idea.)

That tells you, far more effectively than any clinical explanation could, that this process has been botched. That this government just doesn’t have a strategy – and thus that their health and safety legislation is not based on making sure all workers get home safe at the end of their shift.

simpsons small american flags

It’s also a great example of how universalism makes for a much easier policy sell. As Labour found with their Best Start policy in 2014, as anyone who’s ever dabbled with tax law can tell you, as soon as you start making exceptions for this industry or that product or the other

A simple, powerful law – all workplaces must have health and safety reps, if the workers there request one – was an easy sell. The Pike River families supported it. Unions supported it. Labour would probably have been forced to vote for it. A victory for National’s dedicated campaign of portraying itself as centrist and reasonable.

Instead, they’re making fumble after fumble trying to spin a coherent story from contradictory parts, and it’s doing far more damage than pretty much anything the Opposition could have done to them.

sanchez fumble

For the purposes of illustration, Michael Woodhouse = Mark Sanchez, and the National Party caucus = Brandon Moore’s butt. Let us hope – and this is the only time I’ll ever say this – the Opposition can be the New England Patriots.

 

Worm-related earworm of the day: Fatboy Slim

I’ve been away for a while, folks, but had to pop back after getting this jingle stuck in my head thanks to Matt Nippert and our government’s utterly incoherent, lobbyist-driven definition of “high risk” workplaces (dairy farms no; worm farms yes!)

 

Happy Friday, all.

Peter Talley on health and safety law: unions are evil, workers’ lives cheap

Well, this is downright scary.

Whenever unionists talk about the bad employers who put profit over people’s lives, the right are quick to wave it away as fear-mongering, blowing a few small examples out of proportion.

Well, here are the words of a man with a $300 million business, employing 5,000 “full time equivalent” staff, who just got a knighthood for his “services to business”.

The Bill allows any single worker … to request a Health & Safety representative be appointed. Companies will have no right to oppose the creation of that representative irrespective of their political or Union history, their external relationships … or their ability to perform that role.

Fact: strong worker participation including worker-elected health and safety reps is the best way to improve health and safety. The fact that Peter Talley lists “competence” as the last problematic factor tells you everything about where his priorities lie.

In essence, companies can be asked to create and fund Health & Safety representatives and committees, the effective birthplace of industrial Unions, with no control over their activities…

It’s almost like workers have historically been forced to organise to make sure they don’t die on the job. God, what a sense of entitlement these peasants have!

Employers are rightly concerned that Sections 66 to 68 have been promulgated by the Union movement as a way to hand control of work groups to unions and employees … the Bill does not make it clear either that any worker group will contain a majority of employer representatives …

That’s probably because – and this may shock you – when employers have ultimate control over health and safety, and get to cherry-pick the people who are empowered to enforce health and safety, health and safety outcomes are worse.

Unscrupulous Unions could also use Sections 66 to 68 to intentionally damage or destroy a business …

cersei eyeroll

Yep, that’s what unions do. Unions are so evil that they just want to destroy all the businesses everywhere so no one has jobs. Even if you believe the right’s age-old lie that “unions are a business”, what “business” would destroy its own “customer” base that way, by destroying people’s basic ability to spend their money on its “product”?

Sorry, I forgot I was talking to a Talley.

[On the powers of H&S representatives to inspect any part of a workplace in the event of an accident or serious risk to a person’s health and safety]

It is inconceivable to even imagine that legislation would propose to ‘open’ these commercially sensitive production sites to the ‘spying eyes’ of Union appointed personnel or anyone else other than government employees.

Because even when an accident has already occurred, the divine right of Peter Talley to make money must not be infringed.

… if large fines and imprisonment are to be imposed on employed then they should be entitled to act … to protect themselves. … [T]here needs to be a statutory right to dismiss employees for breaching safety rules and procedures with no right to take a grievance arising from their dismissal.

How convenient that Peter Talley – the man who’s trying to force workers to sign contracts which mean they could be dismissed for speaking critically of his draconian master-servant complex – wants more power to summarily fire people.

The whole thing is a farce, born from the brain of a man who honestly believes simultaneously that “unions are failing because they don’t offer anything” and “unions are so powerful I must be protected from their evil demands for better health and safety.”

And it’s all rubbish. Every single point raised contradicts both the Pike River Royal Commission report and the government’s own Health and Safety Taskforce, with no greater evidence that “Peter Talley doesn’t like it.”

I’m sorry that it’s inconvenient for Peter Talley to not have workers die on the job, but the facts are the facts. Strong worker participation leads to better health and safety.

The super-ironic thing? I was just talking about this exact same attitude in my post on costly government. Over the long term, having good relationships with your workers and their unions, having strong, genuine health and safety systems, and respecting workers’ voices and opinions about their work leads to decreased turnover and increased productivity.

Peter Talley would probably make even more obscene amounts of money by pulling his head in and realising that workers are human beings who just want to be treated with a bit of respect. But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

And the real tragedy, after all that comedy? Thanks to people like Peter Talley, the health and safety legislation, born out of the deaths of 29 men at Pike River, will likely be watered down so John Key can keep his caucus happy. And more workers will be injured, or at worst, killed on the job as a result.