Last year several industrial disputes rocked New Zealand. Probably the best known of them were the Ports of Auckland and Affco disputes, which between them saw strike action involving thousands of New Zealanders.
At the heart of these disputes is the ever-growing trend in New Zealand towards casualisation of the workforce.
This can be defined as replacing part-time or full-time employees with casual workers. Casual workers are essentially employed on a day-to-day basis with no real rights of employment.
It is easy to see how this trend towards a casual workforce has stirred up such heat and resentment. Casual staff essentially lose their rights to paid sick leave, holidays and guaranteed income. Their hours can change at any time and they become prone to manipulation and abuse.
Some casual workers have expressed concerns that if they go away on holiday, they might not have work when they come back. Others have pointed out casual work makes it much harder to service a mortgage or budget to support a family. This puts strain on families and can incur costs to government services.
There are some however who see the upside. Students sometimes value the flexibility and there are others who because of life circumstances want a job arrangement that is a little more relaxed. These tend to be short-term jobs with few long-term expectations.
Real problems arise when full-time and part-time jobs are turned into casual ones. Full-time and part-time workers need to make a living and cannot afford uncertainty or a lack of sick leave and other entitlements.
The most serious industrial action our country has seen in the past few years has been about this.
Employers have their story to tell as well. For many employers casualisation allows for flexibility and choice as well as money saved on wages.
It gives more freedom in the decision-making process and casual staff are a great way to plug short-term gaps.
More importantly for major employers, casualisation is used as a tool to break the back of collective bargaining and weaken the power of unions, ultimately driving down wages and work conditions.
The challenge for our country is meeting business demands for flexibility while protecting the rights of workers.
In the long run casualisation will cause more problems. Lower wages and higher stress will put strain on the Government and will ultimately be paid for out of taxes.
There are alternatives to casual work. Part-time, full-time and fixed-term contracts are available. Some of these, along with robust policies and systems, can actually enhance output, cut costs and lead to better outcomes for all.
We as New Zealanders do not always agree on employment matters, but we do agree we want this to be a great country to live in, not just for ourselves but for our children and society as a whole.
The ever-increasing encroachment of casualisation is a threat to our way of life, economy and community wellbeing.
- Fraser Newman is the manager of McLeods Booksellers in Rotorua.