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The announcement of the winner of the Golden Toilet Brush Award is a highlight of International Cleaners Day in New Zealand.

It has been awarded in the past to building owners and cleaning companies who have failed to recognise that their profits are built on the backs of the thousands of workers who do the work of keeping New Zealand clean.

Although Trans-national cleaning company OCS won the 2010 award, easily defeating all the other nominations, they were too bashful to step forward to receive their trophy and make a speech honouring their cleaning workforce.

Mind you, if I was in the shoes of the OCS Chief Executive, I wouldn’t be claiming credit for consistent non-payment and late payment of cleaners’ wages, for refusing to play a constructive role in boosting cleaning wage rates, for using public hospital cleaners as pawns in the attempt to ring more money from the District Health Boards, for trying to force cleaners on to fortnightly pays and for arguing that Part 6A of the Employment Relations Act (which provides protection to cleaners during contract changes) should be repealed.

I would be so embarrassed by this long list of crimes against the cleaning workforce that I would immediately volunteer to go away for an SFWU education camp, where I would for one month agree to forsake my warm Remuera villa and $200,000 salary to live on $27,000 working from 9.30 p.m. to 6.00 a.m. in a cold central city office building cleaning up the muck created by hundreds of workers that I never get the chance to meet.

Today we joined with other fellow service sector unions around the world and celebrated cleaners as individuals, members of communities, mothers, fathers, aunties, uncles and grandparents.

We also gave other stakeholders in the cleaning sector something to think about.

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More than 1.4 million Australian low-paid workers have been given a $26.00 a week rise through a recent decision of the Australian Fair Pay Commission.

The Commission’s decision brings the minimum wage up to $15.00 an hour and all workers who are dependent on awards, some with pay rates well in excess of this, will immediately benefit from a pay boost of 65 cents an hour. Those who are on union-negotiated enterprise agreements can take action to pick up the increase or keep their current relativity with their industry award.

While many low paid workers told the Australian media that $26.00 a week was too low, Australian employer groups said it was “a harsh and irresponsible blow” to small business, would add $2.5 billion to their annual wages bill and jobs would be lost as a result.

However, at least the Australians have a body that makes decisions on fair minimum wage increases unlike the situation in New Zealand. We lost the right to go to an independent body for general wage orders in the 1980s and the award system was abolished in 1991.

Our wage setting system has never recovered from the brutal introduction of the Employment Contracts Act in 1991 and the loss by New Zealand workers of the right to be involved in collective bargaining and the setting of employment conditions across the industries (rather than each individual enterprise) in which they work.

The Employment Contracts Act embedded the individual worker-individual employer workplace relationship and the voluntary setting of employer-specific employment conditions and Labour’s Employment Relations Act has done very little to change that system.

Most New Zealand workers don’t have any say about their employment conditions. They are set by the boss and if the workers don’t like them then they leave. There are legal rights to collectively bargain with your employer, but you need to have the courage to get your fellow workers organised, find a union who has the resources to support you, engage in prolonged negotiation with your employer, strike if necessary and hopefully get an outcome before too many of the workers you organised leave their employment.

While the Australian system is not great, it is a helluva lot better in providing for the retention of minimum industry employment conditions that are set through negotiation/arbitration rather than the free and voluntary agreement of every employer in that industry.

It is interesting that the flow of workers across the Tasman is not made up of workers with particular trade or professional skills. Many of those workers who are leaving New Zealand for Australia are those in minimum wage New Zealand jobs that are entitled to much more in the same job in Australia.

Multi-millionaire Prime Minister John Key has decided to give us all a lecture about how grateful we should all be for the existence of rich people and that we should not be envious when the Government tomorrow decides to give them a tax cut worth thousands of dollars while the rest of us get very little or nothing.

John Key must be very worried about the reaction of lower to middle income earners, those between $48,000 and $70,000 per year, who could gain as little as $1.20 a week from the Government move to hike up GST and slightly lower their personal tax.

To head off the general reaction to high income New Zealanders buying wheelbarrows to take away their tax cut money, he has decided to go on to the offensive and accuse those who argue for a more equitable tax system as being consumed with envy.

The attitude of John Key and the National Party reminds me of the “trickle-down theory” that was popular with the neo-liberal Labour and National regimes of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. According to these politicians if we gave the rich more, they would invest it and the benefits would trickle down to us all.

Unfortunately, this has not happened and New Zealand is one of the worst performers in the OECD for income inequality.

Rather than feeling embarrassed about how unequal our society has become, John Key is trying to give confidence to the rich to publicly defend their incomes (many of which are largely untaxed) and their right to spend it on whatever they like.

It was embarrassing for John Key that Amanda Hotchin, wife of Hanover Finance executive Mark Hotchin, decided to take his advice and defend their high living lifestyle, telling the Sunday Star-Times from their $43,000 a month Hawaii hideaway that “we don’t have to justify where we get our money or what it’s spent on, to anyone.”

Given that Mark Hotchins was one of two Hanover co-founders who were paid around $91 million in dividends in the years before Hanover Finance defaulted on thousands of investors they do have to justify where they got their money from and what they are spending it on.

It’s a long way from the world of John Key and the Hotchins and the world of the parliamentary cleaners, who have to work over 60 hours a week before they top $40,000 a year.

Little do that these cleaners know that they probably would not even have a job without the generosity of the super-rich to generously pay some tax to keep the cleaners in the style of living they are accustomed to.

Good on Winnie Laban and Sue Kedgley for organising the joint Labour/Greens series of meetings around the country to give older people a chance to express their concerns about the reduction in funding for health services.

The reduction in home support for thousands of older people has been progressing silently in many parts of the country as the Government has leaned on District Health Boards to cut expenditure. The District Health Boards have compliantly leaned on assessment agencies to do a bit of local expenditure “trimming”.

Unfortunately, the ”trimming” is often a 50% reduction in home support entitlement.

While District Health Boards will argue that it is only a cut from one hour a week to one hour a fortnight for the older people concerned it can be the difference between them living independently in their own homes or having to move into residential care.

I was recently involved in advocating for an older couple who were living securely in their Housing NZ home. He had developed dementia and she had a serious heart condition.

They were receiving one hour of home support a week to covered cleaning, laundry and some other jobs that neither of them was any longer able to do.

A phone call from the assessment agency told them that due to financial constraints from the District Health Board this was being reduced to one hour per fortnight.

Within three weeks of this re-assignment of hours the wife was admitted to hospital for a couple of days with heart problems and was told she was no longer able to drive their car for an important part of her weekly routine – picking up the groceries. I believe that this was due to the pressure put on her by the loss of one hour of home support, worth about $20.00 a fortnight or $520.00 a year to that DHB.

My investigations showed that for the cost of $520.00 per annum the DHB could have ended up tipping this couple both over the edge into residential care for the cost to the DHB of about $80,000 per annum. At the same time the DHB was showing a massive surplus of $1 million on its home support budget from the number of cuts it had made.

While the Union normally focuses on the dreadful wages paid to the workers who carry out the home support, our elderly population is currently being treated even worse than those who are paid to support them.

The US Senate has been trying to find out who is responsible for the massive oil spill off the Texan coast that has wiped out an enormous fishery and is going to cost billions to clean up.

While it was a BP oil well that caused the problem, it turns out that BP employed a contractor, who employed another sub-contractor, who then employed other subcontractors.

When it came to finding out who was to blame they have all been pointing the finger at each other, including at Halliburton, who you will remember were also involved in sub-contracting to run parts of the Iraq war.

If you think it is bad from a public policy point of view, this form of sub-contracting is disastrous for workers, who can never work out who is the person or company that controls their work.

The SFWU ever day deals with funders hiding behind layers of contractors to get out of taking responsibility for minimum wage rates, hours of work and other conditions.

The Health and Safety in Employment Act makes client companies responsible for the performance of contractors and Part 6A of the Employment Relations Act brings client companies into the framework for preserving workers employment conditions during changes of contractor.

Progressive governments need to keep developing this area of the law to keep up with the new ways large powerful corporations use to get out of their responsibilities and increase their profits.

In recent weeks SFWU members in disability support, public hospitals, school and commercial cleaning celebrated the winning of wage increases.

While some of these increases have only come about through long negotiation processes and weeks of industrial action, they are small increases of one to two percent that are not changing a 20-year New Zealand trend of increasing inequality.

Over the last 20 years incomes have risen at all levels of New Zealand society, but they have risen much more at the top.

Between 1994 and 2008 those in the bottom 10% of income earners earned an extra $3600 in real terms (largely through big minimum wage increases during the Labour Government), while those at the top gained an extra $15,800. Beneficiaries have actually gone backwards, with benefits lower in real terms than they were in 1991.

Salaries for those at the top have rocketed with some New Zealand CEOs earning casino sums, including 16 heads of state sector organisations earning more than $400,000 per annum.

In a recent NZ Listener article it was noted that since the 1991 Employment Contracts Act and the attempt by the then National Government to decimate unions, inequality has rapidly increased.

The 1999-2008 Labour Government halted the upward trend in inequality through its restoration of greater rights for unions, increases in the minimum wage and working for families legislation, but it has been reversed by the economic recession and the National Government’s policies, which are about to include the biggest attack on the incomes of low-paid workers – an increase in GST.

This situation requires some radical solutions.

We need to abandon the once-over-lightly attempt by the previous Labour Government to promote collective bargaining and introduce a system that allows ordinary workers a genuine and constructive part to play a part in the re-distribution of wealth through the right to collectively engage in negotiating minimum pay and employment conditions at the industry level rather than just in their own workplace.

Parties of the centre-left need to commit to rolling back the National/ACT GST increase and adopting their own agenda around taxation that includes capital gains and financial transactions taxes.

But most importantly we need to keep articulating why inequality is a blight on our society and why it needs to be attacked as a matter of urgency.

Without voices being raised about this issue we will never be heard above the incessant din of the individualist philosophy that is at the root of the problem.

Over 3000 SFWU members employed by intellectual disability services provider IHC are currently taking action to win a wage increase that they should have received in November last year.

Despite receiving a 2% funding increase from the Ministry of Health back in July 2009 for the running of their residential services IHC has chosen not to pass any of this on to their low-paid front-line workers.

SFWU workers are taking action to unfreeze their pay through a work-to-rule involving bans on non-essential paper work, on using their own private vehicles on IHC business and on overtime.

In the week beginning Monday 29 March this will be stepped up to some sporadic bans on working “sleepovers”, the period between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. when IHC disability support workers drop from their normal hourly pay rates to an hourly rate of between $3.00 and $4.00 an hour.

The workers are supporting this action because, despite an Employment Court ruling in December 2009 that IHC are required to pay them a minimum of $12.75 an hour for this work, IHC have still not paid a cent extra for this work.

While the union acknowledges that both the wage increase and the payment of the minimum wage for sleepovers are big issues for IHC, it seems like a dippy strategy to simply put your head in the sand and hope that both will go away.

It’s time for positive action on both fronts and that action should happen now!