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.

Campbell Live on zero-hour contracts

Continuing my commemoration of Campbell Live’s commitment to serious investigative reporting of New Zealand current affairs, instead of watching goddamned Road Cops. Tonight: remembering how John Campbell and the team put a spotlight zero-hour contracts and helped push the government to promise change.

Zero-hour contracts leave Kiwi families struggling

The minimum wage in New Zealand is $14.25 per hour, which really isn’t a lot.

Campbell Live has always advocated for higher worker wages – we support the living wage and the employers who offer it.

Today, a new living wage was announced – it’s now $19.25. It’s the amount per hour an employee needs to earn to keep their head above water.

But there’s an entire industry in New Zealand paying minimum wage and less, because the workers they employ don’t even work a full week.

It’s called a zero-hour contract, and as an employee, you are called upon to work whenever required. That means if you’re not required, you don’t get paid that week – so how do these people survive?

Check out Campbell Live’s coverage of the GCSB and Kim Dotcom stories on the TV3 website, while we still can.

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.

Send a message against zero-hour contracts

Great news for some workers in the fast-food industry this week:

Unite has now successfully negotiated for all workers at Restaurant Brands (KFC, Pizza Hutt, Starbucks and Carls Jr.) to have guaranteed hours from July this year.

But there’s always more to do, and now we can send a message to the other big players – McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s – that they need to show their workers some basic respect and give them guaranteed hours of work.

Unite have set up an online form so you can send your own (polite but firm) email to senior management at those companies. They have to listen to their customers – so make your voices heard!

We need to remember too that zero-hour contracts aren’t limited to fast food. There are workers in many other industries who are obliged to be ready to work every day – with no guarantee of actually getting paid.

The right to guaranteed hours of work – or the genuine freedom of a real casual employment arrangement – needs to be enshrined in law. It’s a simple matter of fairness. Your boss shouldn’t be able to demand you be available at all hours but get nothing in return.

We shouldn’t have to generate massive public outcry on a case-by-case basis to get progress, especially when the workers who are forced onto zero-hour contracts (or 90-day fire-at-will trials, or youth rates) are the ones with the least power to challenge the boss.

But it does work. So sign the letter, show your support for companies who don’t use zero-hour contracts, and sign Labour’s petition to pressure the government into making fair employment laws.

Collective action gets things done.

What has Michael Woodhouse actually got right about employment relations?

With a caucus of 59, the National Party must have at least one person on the roster who understands basic employment law. The received wisdom is that National is the party of business, the party of employers, the party of job creation; there should be any number of MPs in their ranks who are qualified to talk about the state of work rights and wages.

Unfortunately, the person they’ve chosen to be the Minister of Workplace Relations and Safety, Michael Woodhouse, is not one of them.

In his latest outing, questioned by Campbell Live on the outright exploitation of workers on zero-hour contracts – in which workers are obliged to show up at a moment’s notice but have no minimum guaranteed hours for the week – literally everything he said is incorrect, misleading, or utterly – deliberately – ineffectual.

“I have worked on casual as a student and on my return from an OE – they’re an important part of the workplace”

Zero-hour contracts are not casual contracts. Under a casual contract, workers aren’t at risk of being fired if they turn down the hours offers. A worker who is expected to show up for regular hours – even if those hours are granted at the manager’s whim – isn’t a casual worker.

Either Woodhouse knows this, and his comment is a smokescreen, or he doesn’t, and shouldn’t have the job he has.

“It might be possible that Mohammad has Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ) opportunities available to him, but obviously everybody’s situation is different,” says Mr Woodhouse. “But it may be possible that he get support that way.”

Because Work and Income are just desperate to hand out cash to people who have jobs. They find it difficult enough to provide adequate assistance to people who literally can’t work, Minister.

But don’t you love the party of business and job creation demanding that the state effectively subsidise businesses to treat their workers poorly?

“We have a growing job market, and I’m sure people like Mohammad will be able to take advantage of that,”

The “growing job market” is a pivotal square on the National Party’s bingo board. We’re consistently promised more jobs, yet on the rare occasions they do appear they’re less skilled, less well-paid, and, well … probably on zero-hour contracts.

It’s also incredibly patronising, the employment law equivalent of:

 

As Iain Lees-Galloway put it, “Unemployment is rising and if these workers had other options, they would take them.” But we have to remember that this is a government of modern capitalism, where people are just resources. Or, as Rob Salmond put it,

In fact, is is another principle the right fervently believes in – that a company’s only job is to deliver value to shareholders – that justifies abuse of zero hours provisions. If you’re operating in a part of the labour market where nobody stays long anyway, and there’s a constant new supply of workers, it makes perfect (narrow) economic sense NOT to treat your workers as assets, but treat them as consumables instead.

So that’s the incorrect and misleading bits. Then there’s the ineffectual bits.

He says he encourages employers to rethink their rostering practices.

Mr Woodhouse says that there will be changes to employment law this year and is “quite happy to introduce legislation into the House in the middle of the year that would prohibit the worst excesses of the [zero-hours] practices that we find”

Oh gosh, prohibiting the worst excesses of a blatant exploitation of workers which leaves many families unable to cover their basic costs of living? How magnanimous.

And if the NZCU Baywide case teaches us anything, it’s that ~encouraging~ employers to ~may be a little less horrible~ is going to have little effect on those dedicated to grinding a worker’s face into the dirt or squeezing a few extra dollars out of the process.

But I’ve saved the best for last.

“Of course we can legislate for all the rules, but can’t legislate for good employer practice.”

I cede the floor to the most excellent Helen Kelly:

PS. 24,000 people have already signed Labour’s petition against zero-hour contracts. You should sign it too, if you want to tell Michael Woodhouse his waffley half-assed measures aren’t good enough.