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Underpayment of up to 750,000 NZ workers raised on international stage

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Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

CTU President Richard Wagstaff addressed the International Labour Organisation (the United Nations agency for work and employment) today at 8 pm New Zealand time to focus global attention on the New Zealand government’s failure to protect working people in the face of the massive payroll systems failure that has left as many as three quarters of a million working New Zealanders out of pocket.

"The Inspectorate and the Government kept it secret for 18 months at least, and even when asked directly, did not come clean about the information they had gathered", said Richard Wagstaff.

"Government policy is bent so far towards being ‘business facing’ that it is unbalanced and blind to the interests of working people," he said.

The full speech is below.

SPEECH BY RICHARD WAGSTAFF

WORKER REPRESENTATIVE TO THE ILC FROM NEW ZEALAND

TO THE PLENARY SESSION OF THE INTERNATIONAL LABOUR CONGRESS

ON 7 JUNE 2016

E ngā mana, e ngā reo, e ngā karangatanga maha, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou koutoa

I want to use this occasion to talk about the importance of the Labour Inspectorate function in enforcing ILO instruments.

For without enforcement, ILO conventions and standards are no more than a shopping list of nice to haves, instead of a clear set of practices that are applied, upheld and experienced by working people at the front line.

NZ signed up to the Labour Inspectorate Convention 81 in 1959, which commits us to maintain a labour inspectorate that is protected from political interference and works in collaboration with workers, employers and their organisations.

We’ve also signed the Holidays with Pay Convention and our Employment Relations Act sets out that Labour Inspectors have clear functions including:

- determining whether the provisions of the relevant Acts have been complied with;

- taking all reasonable steps to ensure that the relevant Acts are complied with;

- monitoring and enforcing compliance with employment standards;

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that the New Zealand Labour Inspectorate operates within a government agency, (called the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment or MBIE for short), a government policy framework and a public service culture that is overly concerned with the interests of business, to the detriment of working people and the wider population.

This isn’t just an issue of resourcing - though that is problematic - rather it’s a wider problem of government policy that is bent so far towards being ‘business facing’ that it is unbalanced and blind to the interests of working people.

Just a couple of days ago, it emerged through the release of government documents, that the Ministry has been well aware of widespread underpayment of New Zealand workers, due to payroll system failures.

MBIE has estimated that up to ¾ of a million of our workers, a third of the workforce, could be missing out by nearly half a billion dollars a year in their wages and salaries. We are a small country with a small workforce - this is a lot of money.

But rather than discuss the matter with the social partners, and look for joint solutions, the Inspectorate and the Government kept it secret for 18 months at least, and even when asked directly, did not come clean about the information they had gathered.

Not long ago our Inspectorate system was found badly wanting, overly business friendly, and too reluctant to enforce standards, when a mining disaster resulted in 29 miners being killed at the Pike River mine.

That was a big wakeup call for all of us.

While the health and safety inspectorate has been strengthened as a result of the Pike Mine disaster, it seems like the reluctance to enforce standards within a business friendly policy environment persists in other parts of the Inspectorate system to this day.

This latest revelation means we can’t rely on our Inspectorate.

So the CTU is calling on the Government to take urgent action and establish an independent tripartite body that has the capacity, capability, integrity and is trusted to carry out a full and thorough investigation into the extent of our current payroll problems.

And this body will need to make urgent recommendations as to how to rectify and assist in remediating these problems so that our workforce is properly paid what they are owed.

Given the delays that have been caused by this cover-up, we ask the Government to legislate to remove limitations on back pay. Otherwise the delays, obfuscation and neglect of the problem will cost New Zealand workers hundreds of millions of dollars through no fault of their own.

Failure to do anything less will reflect badly on our reputation and our ability to uphold the very labour standards we are all working on here to create.

Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou koutoa

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