Liv­ing wage poli­cies show Na­tional’s true face

The New Zealand Herald - - EDITORIAL & LETTERS - Judy McGre­gor com­ment Judy McGre­gor is a pro­fes­sor at AUT, a for­mer Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sioner and a for­mer news­pa­per ed­i­tor.

In the con­fetti of prom­ises show­ered down on us in cam­paign 2017, Na­tional has tried to wa­ter down a mean streak about so­cial is­sues. The grudg­ing ad­di­tion of four more weeks to take paid parental leave (PPL) to 22 weeks is a clas­sic. Last year when he was Fi­nance Min­is­ter, Bill English used his fi­nan­cial veto to kill off Labour’s bill to ex­tend PPL to 26 weeks. He said then that the price was too high, even if he got his maths wrong and over­in­flated the costs of change by more than dou­ble.

His wel­come con­ver­sion to the need for ac­tion on child poverty, af­ter per­sis­tent de­nial by for­mer Prime Min­is­ter John Key that we should even try to mea­sure it, is an­other en­cour­ag­ing ex­am­ple of Na­tional’s new com­pas­sion on sig­nif­i­cant so­cial con­cerns.

But in im­por­tant so­cio-eco­nomic ar­eas such as fair pay and work, it’s the same old Na­tional de­liv­er­ing the same old em­ploy­ment re­la­tions and hang­ing on to pal­try min­i­mum wage rates while promis­ing in­come tax re­lief.

For­mer Na­tional Prime Min­is­ter Jim Bol­ger re­cently said that ne­olib­eral poli­cies, in­clud­ing labour mar­ket dereg­u­la­tion, had ab­so­lutely failed to cure eco­nomic in­equal­i­ties and trade unions needed to have a greater voice. But Steven Joyce loves a bo­gey­man and the lat­est is Labour’s Fair Pay Agree­ments.

Iron­i­cally, only Na­tional, to date, has agreed to a Fair Pay Agree­ment with its set­tle­ment for 55,000 work­ers in aged and dis­abil­ity res­i­den­tial care and home and com­mu­nity sup­port.

Health Min­is­ter Jonathan Cole­man said at the time that care work­ers were widely seen as among the most de­serv­ing of recog­ni­tion and lauded a his­toric mo­ment for the Gov­ern­ment. There was not a voice of dis­agree­ment. The Gov­ern­ment was widely praised by unions, em­ploy­ers, the me­dia, women’s groups, Grey Power and the pub­lic for mov­ing to a ne­go­ti­ated set­tle­ment, even if it took four years of lit­i­ga­tion to move the po­lit­i­cal moun­tain. The set­tle­ment was the re­sult of the very col­lab­o­ra­tion Joyce now finds threat­en­ing.

In a de­bate with Labour’s Grant Robert­son he said em­ploy­ers were very, very con­cerned at the idea that they would have to go to Welling­ton and sit down with the Coun­cil of Trade Unions and the Gov­ern­ment and ham­mer out min­i­mum wage rates for their sec­tor.

So what he clearly prefers is the old style of in­dus­trial re­la­tions kick-box­ing.

Labour’s PPL pol­icy is 26 weeks PPL, while Na­tional of­fers 22 weeks. Labour of­fers a min­i­mum wage in­crease to $16.50 in its first 100 days, while Na­tional refers to a “sus­tain­able rate”.

A Gis­borne pack­house worker tack­led English about the min­i­mum wage, stat­ing she couldn’t un­der­stand how peo­ple lived on it. She asked how would he like it if his hourly rate had gone up only $3.75 over nine years. She was unim­pressed by his re­sponse that it would be a chal­lenge and “that’s why we keep these con­sis­tent. Mod­er­ate in­creases flow­ing through . . . that’s how the floor rises.”

The mood of the work­force is un­equiv­o­cal. The min­i­mum hourly wage is not a liv­ing wage and has be­come a sink­ing lid, not a ris­ing floor. How we achieve fair pay and move on in­come in­equal­ity af­ter the elec­tion will be a mea­sure of po­lit­i­cal ma­tu­rity.

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