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.

Not the “end to zero hour contracts” you were looking for

We have two options before us, New Zealand. Either Michael Woodhouse still hasn’t had anyone explain the difference between zero hour contracts – which are exploitative trash – and casual employment – which is casual – to him.

Or, Michael Woodhouse knows damn well that there’s a significant difference between fairly negotiating an on-call position with your employer, and being at your employer’s beck and call and whim with no ability to say no; and the only reason he’s making any kind

I’m favouring the latter, in light of this report on the proposed changes to employment contracts, which relies heavily on the words “reasonable” and “unreasonable” (and when you’re the one who can afford lawyers, that means whatever you want it to mean) and apparently does nothing to address the actual problem: workers being effectively bonded to their employers and expected to show up at any hour of the day or night with no guarantee of a minimum weekly pay and no ability to get secondary employment to make up the difference.

But speaking on TV One’s Q and A programme Woodhouse said there was no real definition of zero hours contracts.

If an employer wanted someone to be on call, then there would need to be “reasonable compensation” for that, but the law would not put a figure on it.

But he agreed it would still be possible for an agreement to have no stipulated hours.

I don’t know, that sounds pretty much like a zero hours contract to me.

This is the problem for the government. Zero hour contracts are patently unfair. Everyone can see that. And thanks to a dedicated campaign by unions like UNITE and FIRST, with a publicity boost from the much-mourned Campbell Live, it became an issue which couldn’t be ignored or swept aside.

They had to at least appear to do something or the whole “fairness and flexibility” facade would have come crashing down.

But this is not a government which gives one single damn about workers being exploited by big business. This is a government which took away guaranteed minimum rest breaks and knighted Peter Talley.

They’ll talk the tough talk when they need to salvage some credibility, and they’ll promise change when they’re under the gun. But once you look at the real detail, it’s empty. If anything, it makes things worse, by creating even more loopholes for bad employers to exploit – and the irony is that this doesn’t just hurt workers. It hurts the good employers who do want to treat their staff with respect and decency, but get undercut and driven out of business by the exploiters.

In most of the industries which employ people on zero-hour contracts, there is literally no need to. They can predict demand. They know what times are busy and what aren’t. It’s the height of penny-pinching for a 24-hour fast food joint to demand that its workers come and go at no notice in order to save a buck, and it only works because those workers don’t have a lot of choice.

Even an anti-worker, union-hating National government like ours should be able to ban this kind of coercive arrangement without doing any damage to their base. The fact that Michael Woodhouse is still dancing around the issue and trying to weasel his way out of clear, decisive action just shows how morally bankrupt they are.

Michael Woodhouse: a fool or a liar?

Over a month ago I asked what Michael Woodhouse has actually got right on employment relations in New Zealand.

I don’t think it’s too much to expect the Minister of Workplace Relations and Safety to understand basic concepts related to his portfolio. Like the fact that he can, in fact, legislate for good employer practice (that’s the whole point of laws.) Or the fact that zero hour contracts are not the same as casual employer contracts.

But he’s still trotting out that very line – accusing the Labour Party of trying to do away with all forms of casual employment agreement – and it’s very heartening to see (or rather hear) Labour leader Andrew Little name that for what it is: lying.

“Lying” is such a taboo word in politics. You can’t use it in Parliament at all – every member is an honorable member even when they’re full of crap.

Yet sometimes, there is simply no other logical conclusion. Either Michael Woodhouse is deliberately confusing the two types of employment agreement to obfuscate the issue – i.e. is lying; or Michael Woodhouse is utterly ignorant of the basics of employment and has literally no one around him who understands the difference and has thought to advise him of it.

I don’t think anyone believes Michael Woodhouse is that stupid. Nope, he’s just following the National Party playbook, and it goes all the way back to their exploitative 90-day trial legislation, first passed in 2009.

90-day trials are not the same as the probationary periods which our laws already allowed for – probationary periods which still protected workers’ basic rights. Under a 90-day trial your boss can fire you for getting injured on the job. Or calling in sick. Or joining the union. Or rebuffing sexual harassment. All things which it would be illegal for someone to fire you for in any other circumstances.

But as soon as anyone points this out, the rightwing spinners get all indignant: “but trial periods are useful! Why don’t you want young workers to get a chance to prove themselves?”

They know the difference. They’re lying about it. And they’re depending on our decent Kiwi nature – our dislike of confrontation and our assumption that everyone is acting in good faith – to get away with it.

~

If you’re in Auckland tomorrow, Unite Union are holding an action against zero-hours contracts as part of a global day of action for fast food workers. Check out the event Facebook page for details.

Woodhouse: tough on bad employers?

It should be heartening to see a National Minister of Labour (sorry, “Workplace Relations and Safety”) handing out to “bad” employers some of the no-nonsense tough-talk the right usually reserves for pregnant teenagers and people who don’t like being illegally spied on:

Employers who exploit their workers or breach employment standards are in line for a raft of harsher penalties.

New measures set to be introduced by the Government, include naming and shaming offending business owners, a massive increase in the value of fines the Employment Court can hand out, and the possibility of being banned from employing staff.

Thing is, it’s very easy to promise you’re going to crack down on employers who breach minimum standards … when you’re reducing said standards to make it easier for bad employers to get away with bad behaviour.

This is a government which has empowered employers to dismiss workers in the first 90 days for any reason whatsoever, walk away from collective bargaining, refuse to provide full information to workers who are dismissed or made redundant, hire new workers on worse terms and conditions than the collective, and even allowed employers to take their share of KiwiSaver contributions out of your pay.

They’ve re-introduced youth rates so 17- and even 19-year-olds can be paid less for doing the same work. They’ve removed protections for vulnerable workers like cleaners so their mates at CrestClean can make more money. They’ve allowed millionaires like Peter Jackson to classify permanent employees as “contractors” and deny them basic protections.

Talking tough now about “stronger sanctions” and “sending a message” can only be seen as a PR exercise. Which is a pity, because if National actually cared about cracking down on the bullies of New Zealand workplaces, I’m sure workers would be happy to provide a list of candidates.

By the time we get around to 2017 – unless Winston (a) wins in Northland and (b) doesn’t sell out for some sweet office-baubles again – the “minimum employment standards” in New Zealand could be so flimsy that Woodhouse could make breaching them punishable by public flogging and it wouldn’t mean much. The bad employers will take full advantage, and the good employers – who believe in radical notions like “my workers should be able to have a lunch break” and “my workers need to be able to afford food and rent” – will be undercut and struggle to stay in business.

Which makes Woodhouse’s stormy rhetoric all the more ironic:

“Those who breach minimum employment standards have an unfair advantage over law-abiding employers and it is unfair on employees who work hard to support their families”

You know what else is unfair, Minister? Removing basic workers’ rights, undermining workers’ collective bargaining, and redefining “law-abiding employers” so it covers the exploitative companies who – probably – support your election campaigns.