People’s History Symposium 2016: Precarious Work – past, present and future

Each year, since 2013, the Labour History Project, National Library of New Zealand and Wellington Museum have collaborated to make history more accessible to the Wellington public with a series of lectures or a one-day symposium on a particular theme.  This year, we discussed the rise of precarious work – non-standard employment that is poorly paid, insecure, unprotected and unsustaining – in Aotearoa/New Zealand since 1991.   We acknowledged that it is the twenty fifth anniversary of the Employment Contracts Act, which dismantled the industrial relations system that supported collective bargaining in this country.  What follows is a precis of the presentations and the responding questions and discussion led by the audience.

Don Franks provided songs to liven up the day

Policy researcher Linda Hill introduced the audience to the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration system that existed before 1991.  Operating since 1894, it supported wage negotiations between registered unions, representing different trades or occupations, and groups of employers, to set minimum pay rates, pay scales, penal rates (extra pay for working unsociable hours such as week nights and weekends), casual rates, and conditions on the job.  By the 1980s, these included provisions against unjustified dismissal, discrimination and sexual harassment.  Any disputes were arbitrated by a tribunal comprising representatives of unions, employers and the state.  Registering under the IC&A Act meant unions gave up the right to strike.  Once the collective agreement, called a wage award, was registered, it applied to all employers and employees in that occupation (this was called ‘blanket coverage’), and in the private sector union membership became compulsory to ensured there were no ‘free riders’.  In the public sector, union membership was voluntary but until 1988 there was no right to strike.  The round of negotiations each year included pay relativities between different occupations, and between the public and private sectors, which meant wage changes flowed on to other parts of the workforce.  Pay inequality for women was part of the system until legislation in 1960 and 1972 overturned this; all female rates for the job were erased from collective agreements.  Wage inequalities continue for women due in part to occupational segregation – jobs where women predominantly work are paid less than jobs where men predominate.  However, due to the Arbitration system, the gender pay gap has historically been smaller in New Zealand than other countries such as Britain and the United States.

One downside of the system was it encouraged passive union membership.  Union officials did the negotiation work on their members’ behalf and so many union members knew little about how the system worked and how it was protecting them.  The industrial relations system was not taught in schools; few people know why we have a public holiday called ‘labour day’.  When the Arbitration system was replaced by enterprise-only contracts in 1991, it was workers – clerical/sales/service sector/labourers/farm workers – in scattered and small workplaces that were the most de-unionised.  Penal rates and casual rates were reduced or lost across the labour market.  Over the next 10 years all industrial action taken was to get collective bargaining, not individual contracts.   Between 1980 and 2010 union density dropped 53 percent, the biggest change out of 20 countries in the OECD.  Some of those who used to be protected by unions and blanket coverage are now New Zealand’s precarious workers.  Recent research shows workers benefit from bargaining collectively.  The audience was interested in the fact that while women make up 58% of union members, who are mostly in the state sector, the gap between women’s and men’s average pay is much the same in both public and private sectors.

Employment lawyer Peter Cranney analysed the way statutes worked in tandem with the Arbitration system to guarantee rights for workers.  He gave the example of the Employment of Boys and Girls Without Payment Prevention Act 1899, which set minimum rates to attend to the exploitation young men and women faced in the workforce at the turn of the twentieth century.  And there were many other pieces of legislation that protected workers in factories, shops, offices, and eventually agriculture.  The 1936 Industrial Arbitration and Conciliation Amendment Act gave workers the 40-hour week. When the Employment Contracts Act destroyed collective bargaining requirements in 1991, the Holidays and Minimum Wage acts were also amended to effectively undermine the right to a 40-hour week and double-time on a Sunday as well.  Part of the reason that there is such exploitation of workers currently is that employment law no longer explicitly states minimum rights and protections.  Statutes are littered with vague expressions of principle that can be interpreted however employers see fit.  That is why we have massive labour hire companies, contracting workers on very low pay with no security and McDonalds can demand their workers are available 111 hours a week and guarantee them only 21 hours.  He suggests we return to writing legislation that is specific and practically addresses the exploitation workers face in the workforce.

Industrial relations academic Steve Blumenfeld showed us how little counting has been done of precarious workers until 2008.  This makes it very difficult to make correlations between the 1991 Employment Contracts Act and growing numbers of precarious workers.  However, what we can say is that the law has changed since 1991 to enable employers to ‘use non-standard workers as a source of low cost labour and employ them on markedly inferior terms.’  Blumenfeld made excellent use of CTU 2012 and 2013 studies to explain that precarious workers are those often found in casual, zero-hours, seasonal, contracting (including labour hire) and fixed term types of work.  Such insecure work particularly affects Māori, Pacific, women, children and young people, migrants and people with disabilities.  Rosenberg posits that if we include the unemployed, part-timers who want more work, and those who feel insecure in their current job, this number sits at about 40 percent of the workforce.  The audience was of the mind that if we included those who feel insecure in their current employment, the number would be far higher than 40 percent.

Historian Grace Millar reminded us that unionised, stable workplaces were spaces where collective memories of rights and resistance were present, and passed on to new workers.  She argues that with the high turnover of employees and contract labour, such memories have been disrupted, and no-one knows how much better wages and conditions used to be.  There are also antagonisms between those who experienced unionised workforces and those post-1991 generations that have not.  If we are to build a collective ‘us’, she argued, we need to find ways to share work histories of rights and resistance cross-generationally.

Industrial relations scholar Deborah Jones discussed how precarious, exploitative work has become normalised in the film industry, where the identity of being a ‘creative’ absents the idea of being a ‘worker’.  Drawing on oral interviews, she reflected on how powerful the idea of getting ‘the dream job’ to grow the creative industry is.  Film industry workers put up with contract-based work that ranged in wage rates from nothing to very high with extremely poor conditions, without complaint.  This is because film workers access jobs through people they know – so you had to be ‘chipper’ and not rock the boat – and you were deemed ‘only as good as your last job’, therefore your creative talent always has to be on display.  Jones showed how New Zealand film crews are sold internationally on precisely those terms as cheap, non-union, freelance, enthusiastic labour.  This played out very publically when Helen Kelly and Actors’ Equity challenged the industry for its exploitation of those working on The Hobbit and were accused of being unpatriotic.  The audience identified that it was not just in film work that these kinds of dynamics operated; academic jobs were described in this way as well.  This led to a discussion of the rhetoric that seems to dominate currently that workers should be somehow grateful for the jobs they have ‘been given’ by employers.

Historian Ross Webb introduced us to the freezing workers’ unions ‘Jobs that Count’ campaign and Talleys’ deliberate union-busting behaviour since they bought out AFFCO in 2010.  Webb revealed the loyalty, pride and solidarity of freezing workers, their sense of union history and why rules of seniority are so important to seasonal workers.  The campaign has had successes but Talleys continues to be obstructive.  The audience responded by asking why has pride in the idea of being a worker – still prevalent in places like the freezing works – disappeared in many workplaces?  Where is the sense that we have rights and value as workers gone?

Victoria Hopgood, president of Unite union, gave us a rousing speech on how Unite members and their families were so successful in changing the law to ban zero-hours contracts.  She drew attention to the importance of building links between fast food workers internationally and how much can be learned from transnational solidarity.  Since zero-hour contracts have been banned, Unite union membership has climbed and 80 percent of KFC workers are unionised.  NZCTU secretary Sam Huggard continued this discussion of campaigns, to analyse the different ways unions have exercised power outside of traditional collective bargaining strategies to increase workers’ rights, particularly those in precarious work.  He shared workers’ stories in a variety of campaigns, explaining how: freezing workers joined in solidarity with local hapū and iwi in the ‘Jobs that Count’ campaign; Kristine Bartlett (in the age-care sector) and the Service and Food Workers’ Union (now E Tu) won a legal case that strengthened the Court’s interpretation of the Equal Pay Act to mean women should be paid the same as men in work of equal value; parents and widows of deceased forestry workers put public pressure on the forestry sector to improve health and safety and prevent further deaths on the job; super-exploited migrant workers contacted migrant organisations and First Union to challenge illegal labour practices; and the formation of a confidential Association that labour hire workers can join without endangering their livelihoods.  Huggard demonstrated there are many ways workers can organise to build and exercise power in the workplace.  Ibrahim Omar told his own story of being an immigrant and working huge long hours to make ends meet.  He described how he encountered the living wage movement and how gaining a living wage, currently $19.80 an hour, has changed his life.   Omar and Lyndy McIntyre explained how bringing unions, faith and community groups together to demonstrate and hold employers to account for the injustice of poverty wages, has brought effective change.  They spoke about the successes in local councils, particularly the Wellington City Council, and the 60 accredited employers who now pay their workers the living wage.  There are currently 70 living wage groups campaigning across this country.

While the majority of the presentations analysed paid employment, feminist economist Prue Hyman took account of those who work in unpaid household, voluntary and caring work as well.  She talked through the possibilities of establishing a Universal Basic Income (UBI) in New Zealand, where everyone is paid a living income by the state without means testing or a work requirement.  Hyman argued it would alleviate poverty; reduce the administrative expense of targeting and its stigma; enable people to engage paid work because they want, rather than have to; recognise the contributions to society of all kinds of work; act as compensation for the concentration of wealth in this country; and be socially responsible. She raised a complex set of questions about the expense and dangers of UBI, and argued that it would have to be instituted with progressive taxation and a welfare system to ensure that UBI isn’t used to reduce everyone to poverty incomes.  The audience pointed out that UBI should be administered by those most stigmatised and means-tested in our society to really redress the balance of power.

From listening to these talks and conversations, it became clear that our history matters – we need to know how we ended up in such a situation where precarity is so prevalent.  It is important to find ways to share success stories – how people have collectively resisted and demanded rights, protections and security in their everyday lives – as well as the stories of exploitation.  We also need to dream new ways of doing things, where the wealth we all generate is far more generously shared.

Cybèle Locke

For the full programme of the day, please visit: