Will NZ Get Fair Pay?

Prue Hyman

KIN columnist Prue Hyman looks at the chances of the  Fair Pay group  getting really fair  pay for all.

She says: “We’ve had two (more!) important working parties announced recently -– on welfare and on fair pay agreements (Fair Pay Agreements Working Party).

Both are large and hence somewhat unwieldy.

They have representatives from both those wanting major change to benefit disadvantaged groups at the bottom of the income distribution and those far more cautious, including people on the side of big business.  

Jim Bolger’s role

Joan and Jim Bolger

Former National Prime Minister Jim Bolger is to head the Fair Pay Agreements (FPAs) working party. Is this a clever coup to disarm opposition or yet another sign that Labour led governments are always terrified of frightening the horses?

Maybe you really believe that Bolger is a convert to the left, regretting many of the actions of his governments including the 1991 Employment Contracts Act and Ruth Richardson’s benefit cuts. Well good on you – but I don’t believe he is genuinely on the side of ending neo-liberal policies.

Maybe he can convince a disparate group of unionists, employers and academics to come to some compromise that genuinely shifts power away from employers, restores some of the purchasing power to employees that has been removed over the past 35 years and encourages productivity growth.

But I’m not holding my breath. And I worry that with the low level of unionisation Bolger’s policies caused, the unions do not have the membership or power to hold out for worthwhile solutions.

Labour campaigned on fair pay

Labour campaigned for a better deal for workers

The Labour Party did campaign on the FPA policy, which is intended to stop the ‘race to the bottom’ with companies lowering wages to undercut competition.

Workers at the lower end of the earnings scale have not benefited proportionately from greater labour productivity, with capital’s share of national income having risen at the expense of labour’s. This has happened to an extent in most developed countries.

Fair Pay Agreements are intended to cover entire industries and/or occupations, setting minimum standards for wages and employment conditions like allowances, weekend and night rates, hours of work and leave arrangements for all workers covered.

The agreements will be set through collective bargaining between unions and employers within each sector, without the need for bargaining with each individual employer.

Shades of the awards system

It’s shades of the old awards/agreements which set wages up to the 1980s – though of course politically it is essential to avoid the old language and to look towards a new system.

It is noteworthy that the framework for the working party already includes the fact that industrial action (strikes and lockouts) will not be permitted in negotiations for Fair Pay Agreements. And the management and mitigation of various risks are spelled out as being important in the terms of reference. The scope and the design of the system is what the Working Party is about, the nitty-gritty detail that will be needed.

Union reservations

The union side is likely to have reservations about those constraints.

Currently the nursing union is threatening industrial action in their attempt to secure adequate (and justified) significant pay increases.

Certainly unionists John Ryall and Richard Wagstaff should be holding out on the Working Party for genuine progress for multi employer agreements.

But they will also be realistic about the need to try to get concurrence from the employer side.

I can’t wait for real progress – as long as it does not hold up pay equity legislation and negotiations which are further advanced.

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