Tuesday 15th October 2019
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Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters used his first-ever address to a Council of Trade Unions national conference to chide the union movement for striking more under a Labour-led than a National-led government.
He also made clear that his New Zealand First party is nowhere near reaching a settled position on the flagship Fair Pay Agreements policy championed by his senior coalition government partner, Labour.
Asked by journalists after his speech to the biennial CTU conference whether there would be FPA legislation before the election, he said decisions would emerge "in a matter of months."
That comment suggests that neither Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern nor Workplace Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway, who are due to address the conference later today and tomorrow, respectively, will have much news for Labour's bedrock supporters in the trade union movement, despite the CTU releasing a paper today that was intended to put pressure on the government to act.
Peters also took the unions to task for mounting more industrial action under a government that it had helped to elect than in the previous nine years of the National Party-led government.
"We respect your right to strike, but your timing is sometimes unfortunate, to say the least," said Peters, who said he had never previously been asked to address a CTU conference in the 40 years since he was first elected to Parliament.
Ardern has said previously that there would be no more than one or two FPAs before the 2020 election, but the current rate of progress on legislation to allow them to occur suggests unions and employers will struggle to complete any negotiations before the next general election, expected to be held around this time next year.
Asked by a union delegate on the conference floor what both NZ First's and his personal view of FPAs was, Peters replied: "That is part of an ongoing discussion within New Zealand First and the current government" and pointed to his party's advocacy of a higher minimum wage - a policy agreed to in the coalition agreement signed after the 2017 election and which is lifting the minimum wage to amongst the highest in the OECD by April 2022.
"I can't answer what the outcome is at the moment," he said, but referred to three lowly paid groups of workers, including cleaners, as deserving special treatment to achieve higher wages, whether or not that was achieved by an FPA.
Unions have previously identified cleaners, security guards and supermarket employees as groups of workers who suffer both low pay rates and very low rates of unionisation.
FPAs would allow groups of workers - either 1,000 or 10 percent of an identified industry or sector - to require bargaining at a national level for standard terms and conditions. Unions are arguing such agreements should apply to all workers in a sector, whether or not they were part of a collective agreement to start with or working on individual contracts.
The broad sweep of those proposals is opposed by business lobby groups and Peters indicated that NZ First saw its role in the political debate as being that of a "responsible arbitrator".
He signalled that NZ First would be pushing for regional variations in FPAs.
"The criteria that you'd apply in Invercargill is not the criteria that you'd apply in Auckland or Timaru and Oamaru. These differentials you've got to address early, otherwise there will be foreseeable consequences. Your cost structure in a place like Auckland is out of all proportion to, say, a place like Kaitaia."
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