Rachel Mackintosh argues that we can end inequalities among workers by acting for the health and well-being of all working people.
The pandemic is a great rupture. Those who seek hastily to sew up the rupture and return to pre-pandemic normal are seeking to preserve a world where wealth is funnelled to the already wealthy at alarming rates, while millions upon millions pay.
We can do better. We can rebuild a world where we prioritise community health and well-being, where rising wages lead the recovery, where we keep and create decent jobs, where working people, through our unions, are involved in all decisions, and where we end inequality.
The pandemic showed us what is essential, what is not, and how we have been valuing billionaires over the people who keep our world going. With permission, I share this story:
My name is Rose Kavapalu. I am an essential worker, who has been cleaning for 15 years at police stations on the minimum wage.
I work 13 and a half hours per day — five and a half hours at Otahuhu Police Station and eight hours at St Cuthbert’s College: a total of 67 and a half hours per week.
During the first Lockdown I was really scared for my life, the lives of my elderly parents, and my husband who’s got underlying health conditions. I wanted to stop working but I couldn’t because I am an essential worker. All of a sudden, the public realised how important my job is to them.
I was worried whether my PPE gear was enough to protect me and my family. I couldn’t sleep at night.
The sacrifices that we essential workers have to make for the minimum wage are not worth it.
At the point of Lockdown, Rose’s story — already a story of struggle — paints a sharp picture of the divisions in our society. Rose couldn’t stay in a bubble. While the higher paid in our country were able to work from home and have groceries delivered, Rose and her whānau, like all the low-paid essential workers, put themselves in harm’s way every day.
There is more to Rose’s story. There is a reason that she works two jobs. She explains the history of her police station cleaning, where she has worked for a series of employers who are contracted to the New Zealand Police:
I have gone through three cleaning contractors and every time the contract changes they reduce my hours. My hours used to be 12 hours a day and every time the contract changed it dropped. Now I have only five and a half hours a day.
Driving Contracts and Workers Down
Rose’s story shows us how work is structured in this country. We consider that some work, while it needs to be done, doesn’t need to be paid enough for someone to live with dignity. We arrange work so that, where an organisation needs a service — cleaning, security, catering, deliveries — the people who run that organisation can contract out the work to the lowest bidder. The people doing the work, like Rose, get whatever is the lowest cost the contractor can get away with. The lowest limit is not the minimum wage for 40 hours per week, it is the number of hours one person can physically work, it is the number of families that can squeeze into a house, or a garage, or a car. It is dangerous, precarious work in which people get killed.
Even working together in a union, the people doing the work have limited bargaining power to push this lower limit up. We have to negotiate with the employer, not the funder. And because there are no limits on who can set up as a contractor, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of employers across the country. Unions can ask employers to bargain together, so we can establish standards across an industry, but employers are not obliged to conclude an agreement under this bargaining arrangement, and seldom do.
New Vision for Work
Our country doesn’t have to arrange work this way. We could do it differently.
Unions are the largest democratic organisations in the country and in the world, and are the only organisations that exist to further the interests of working people. We have a vision and a plan.
Prioritise Health and Well-being
Our vision is of a world where we prioritise true health and well-being. A world where working people have adequate personal protective equipment and access to COVID vaccination. And where working people have a collective say in our well-being, and so are safe, come home alive at the end of the day, and are free from all forms of violence and harassment. In the long term, our vision covers the whole of society, with an adequate welfare system, healthy housing available to everyone and accessible healthcare for all.
Workers Bargain for Living Incomes
Our vision is of a world where working people bargain for living incomes that can lift the material circumstances. Our vision is for decent work, work that we have collectively decided is useful, work that is performed in good conditions, that is healthy, safe and well paid.
Our vision is for all working people to have a collective say in what is healthy and safe work, in what the wages are, in what accessible education, training and development is necessary, in what conditions we work and in how best to do our work.
Our vision is for an end to inequality.
Our plan has many parts, including supporting Māori community development and good jobs in Māori enterprises. In sectors like primary health and disability, this means funding increases for Māori and iwi providers to ensure decent wages.
In other sectors, it means regulations for collective and/or cooperative ownership of land and a model of investing in the economy that meets Māori aspirations.
Fair Pay Agreements
The part of our plan that is upon us right now is proposed legislation to give unions the ability to negotiate fair industry standards through what are called Fair Pay Agreements.
These collective agreements go beyond a single employer or multiple employers, to a whole industry.
Working people will be able to negotiate collectively for one agreement — one set of minimum industry-wide pay and conditions.
Employers will not have the option to undercut one another, as they will all be covered.
These agreements will underpin but not replace existing collective bargaining arrangements. And if industry employers and unions cannot reach agreement on these minimums, there will be an independent arbitration body that will make a final and binding decision.
Every part of our vision can be on the table in a Fair Pay Agreement negotiation. We can negotiate for safety and well-being, for education and development, for how our work should be performed, including hours, and we can negotiate for decent wages.
It Is Possible
Under a Fair Pay Agreement, Rose Kavapalu can hope to have just one job, with sufficient income to work a standard full-time week, with safe and healthy conditions and a voice in her employment. And she can hope for priceless time with her husband, elderly parents and wider whānau.
Tui Motu Magazine. Issue 259 May 2021: 6-8