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OPINION: Fair Payment Agreements and 'swallowing vomit' - the lot of the CTU

Thursday 17th October 2019

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Council of Trade Unions president Richard Wagstaff was kept waiting by the Workplace Relations Minister, Iain Lees-Galloway, at the CTU's biennial conference in Wellington on Wednesday. It was either prophetic or to be expected. 

Wagstaff had to improvise while he waited for the minister to arrive, riffing at one stage about a colleague's claim the night before that being in the trade union movement often involved "having to swallow more vomit". 

Lees-Galloway then arrived with a speech of almost insulting vagueness about when and where the government will eventually land on the unions' pet project: the introduction of nationally binding Fair Pay Agreements.

FPAs seek a return to national collective bargaining, starting first with the worst-paid, lightly unionised workers in industries like cleaning, supermarkets, and being a security guard.

Those are the three industries the CTU wants to see covered first by FPAs. Employers across all industries, with some justification, fear a return to de facto, albeit possibly temporary, compulsory unionism when an industry or sector enters an FPA process. There are fears too about straitjacketing different regions into the same pay scales.

The cost of living in Auckland is very different from Timaru.

New Zealand First hears both these concerns, loud and clear.

So, now, there will be a discussion document issued, working up the policy ideas of a working group that reported nine months ago. Submissions are sought before Christmas.

This discussion document is now "extremely imminent", Lees-Galloway told journalists after his speech, an upgrade from the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern's, "very soon" at her post-Cabinet press conference on Monday.

Days, not weeks, said Lees-Galloway, confirming it had been through all necessary Cabinet committees. 

So, ready to release then: "Yes," he said. "Soon."

What about the timing of legislation?

"We need to take the time to get it right, take all the feedback from unions, from business, from the general public. The most important thing is that we get these right and they get bedded in and become a permanent part of our industrial relations framework."

So, FPA law passed by Parliament before the next election?

"Oh look, it's entirely dependent on how long it takes to make policy decisions and how long the drafting takes. We'll see how we go," the minister said. 

But surely FPA legislation would be at least introduced before the 2020 election?

Lees-Galloway remained evasive. "We'll make policy decisions, we'll hand it over to the drafters and who knows how long it will take them to do their work and when we've got a piece of legislation ready to introduce, we'll introduce it."

Politely ignoring the need also for a select committee process, it seemed fair to ask whether Ardern's promise of "no more than one or two FPAs" before the 2020 election might yet prove impossible for want of the actual enabling law.

"Let's see how we go, as I say. A number of processes we still have to undertake and, um, we'll see how long each of those takes."

This was coalition government in action, he said. A long process creates enduring outcomes: that is the government's new mantra.

The day before, Winston Peters, formally addressing a CTU conference as NZ First party leader for the first time in 40 years in Parliament, estimated "a matter of months" for the coalition partners to make decisions. 

In other words, if there's FPA legislation in place before the election, it'll be a miracle. More likely, it may not even have emerged from select committee hearings, if it's been introduced at all.

If so, that means further wrangling in the next term of a Labour-led government or dismantling in the unlikely, but now very imaginable, case of Labour being defeated at the 2020 election. At best, it could be well into 2021 before anyone sits down at a negotiating table.

Asked whether he had just been fed a teaspoon of vomit, Wagstaff said, tactfully: "It is what it is."


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