Archive for October, 2009

Standing Up for School Cleaners

All of New Zealand’s state and integrated primary and secondary schools received government funding from 1 July this year to bring their cleaners up to a minimum rate of $14.62/hour.

While all the directly-employed cleaners received a well-earned pay increase from 1 July, those cleaners employed by contractors stayed on their miserable rate of $12.55 an hour – 5 cents an hour above the minimum wage.

Since then the Union has been chasing the schools and the contractors to pay up. Most schools said they would pay over the tagged money but the nearly all the contractors said they didn’t want it. They said it would create problems for them with cleaners who cleaned schools on $14.62/hour and commercial buildings on $12.55/hour.

After four months of going around in circles we have said “enough!”

We told HuttValleyHigh School and WellingtonCollege to either get the contractor to pay up or we would start “public awareness raising” by hundreds of cleaners outside their gates.

Amazingly, the contractor at these two schools suddenly decided that they would pay the $14.62/hour rate.

Isn’t it a sad state of affairs that some of the lowest paid workers in New Zealand have to make threats to get money that is owed to them.


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Give Kate a Break!

National Party Cabinet Minister Kate Wilkinson has introduced legislation to kill off statutory minimum rest breaks for workers.

She says that she wants to “give employers and employees greater opportunity to develop breaks at the time best suited to their individual requirements”.

While I was reflecting today on this new found freedom I had a visit from union member Anuradha Lal, who up until late last year was working at a local Indian restaurant.

Like many of the cases we come across in ethnic restaurants she was working on average 60 hours a week and during some days she worked 11 hours with only a half-hour break for lunch.

She has asked her employer, who also worked in the restaurant, about 10 minute rest breaks, but he said the restaurant was too busy and it did not suit his business.

Anuradha was excited when the rest break legislation came into effect last year because her employer was forced to arrange the breaks on a roster.

Kate Wilkinson’s brave new world of employer and employee sitting down and determining work breaks that are best suited to their individual requirements is so far away from this reality that sometimes I wonder what planet she is on.

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Samuel Parnell Remembered

I didn’t think I should let Labour Day go by without joining Labour Party President Andrew Little, Employment Relations spokesperson Trevor Mallard and about 20 other labour activists (including some SFWU members) in a visit to the grave of the organiser of the eight-hour working day, Samuel Parnell.

Sam is buried in Wellington’s old Bolton Street cemetery in a grave looking the worse for wear despite a makeover by the Carpenters Union back in 1961.

In 1839, before the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, Sam argued with a local shipping merchant, George Hunter, about the conditions for building him a store in Petone. Sam insisted that a condition of employment was that he only worked an eight hour day.

Not only did Sam strike a deal with Mr Hunter but he went on to organise other workers coming off the boats to also insist on the eight-hour day. A workers’ meeting held in Wellington in October 1840 is said to have resolved to restrict the eight hours from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., anyone offending to be ducked into the harbour.

Parnell died in 1890 but the eight-hour day, which had by then become standard for tradesmen and labourers, was not forgotten. Unions publicised the campaign for shorter hours by holding annual processions late in October on what became known as Labour Day.

In 1899 the Government made Labour Day into a public holiday, but the cause that Parnell championed in the 19th century is still as important today as we battle to get wage rates up to a level where long hours are not a permanent feature of many members’ working lives.

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Hospital Cleaners Come into their Own

This morning I was phoned by a journalist about the impact on the outbreak of the ESBL superbug for cleaners at NorthShoreHospital.

The superbug outbreak was so severe the hospital was dividing wards in half and putting those with the superbug in one half of the ward and those without the superbug in the other half.

Superbugs have become a common feature of the NZ healthcare system. Infection of patients by the ESBL superbug has risen from zero in 1999 up to over 5000 last year.

I told the journalist that most of the time hospital cleaners are invisible. They are low paid, they are not required to have a minimum qualification or training standard, they are often the first group to be cut or re-tendered when District Health Board finances are tight and they are usually the last group to be consulted when changes to the hospital are being considered.

It is only when publicity breaks out about hospital infections does the poor old hospital cleaning workforce come into its own.

While North Shore Hospital quickly put out a statement that the superbug was not caused by poor cleaning standards (not an allegation made by me) they do need to consider the place of the cleaner in the hospital system and start listening to the proposals the union has been putting forward for some time about minimum pay rates, minimum cleaning qualifications and examples of how hospital cleaners can add more value to the healthcare team.

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The NZCTU Conference supported a Union Change paper today that brought together the work of four internal groups that have been looking at further changes to employment law, how to grow unionism, how to develop union leadership and how to use our resources better.

Tribute must go to the two principal CTU officers Helen Kelly and Peter Conway for driving along this work and for the openness of unions to consider new and innovative ways of doing things.

When the SFWU has hosted overseas visitors they have surprised me by telling me how open NZ unions are to change compared to other movements around the world.

The most controversial proposal for change was to set up a central union organisation to attract in workers from those sectors that unions either have a very low presence or no presence. Given that only over 88% of the private sector workforce are not in unions the target audience is very big.

This organisation would provide new members with a very low level membership but would encourage them to become active in union activities either by receiving newsletters, getting them involved in union events, or if they were in a potentially organised workplace to give them some assistance before facilitating them and their fellow unionised workmates on to the relevant union.

It is amazing that for every person who is a member of a union then there are probably at least 2-3 others in their working family who are not in a union. If we started from there the numbers would build very quickly.

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Barbara Puts the Boot In

SFWU National President Barbara Wyeth got the chance to put the Union’s concerns about the wage freeze across the state and state-funded sectors.

She jumped up after a speech today to the NZCTU Conference by Prime Minister John Key. Barbara complained about the current wage freeze that was being imposed on people such as her working as food service workers in public hospitals.

She said that at the same time that she was being told there would be no increase in her wage rates the Government was doubling the ACC levy on the bike that she rode to work and was proposing other changes to ACC that would cost her more.

She told John Key that she was so angry at the injustice of what was happening that if she wasn’t so poor she would take her shoe off and through it at him.

Good on you Barbara. After rejecting the plea of the NZEI school support members for support in addressing their low pay rates I was surprised that the rostrum was not covered in shoes.

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Business Support for ACC

I was surprised to read the editorial in last week’s issue of the business paper The Independent and its opposition to the Government privatising ACC.

From what you hear National and ACT Party politicians say it appears that business is totally behind making ACC just another insurer competing out there in the market for workplace insurance coverage.

With the multi-billion dollar bail out of global insurer AIG by the US Government any sane person would wonder why you would want to expose New Zealanders to the risk of companies such as AIG running our accident compensation system, but it is good to see The Independent raising issues in addition to this.

The editorial raised the issue of the hefty surcharges on employers’ levies that would be necessary to open the workplace part of the scheme to private sector competition and urges political parties to think about whether the principles that were the foundation of the original scheme are still relevant today.

It quite rightly poses the question as to whether ACC is merely “an insurance scheme that can be opened to private competition or is a social insurance scheme that requires a government monopoly and full entitlements in exchange for the right to sue.”

I know where our union stands on this issue, but this editorial will show ACC Minister Nick Smith that not all business supports the National Party policy.

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