Monday, July 19, 2010

The national conversation about work

Continuing on today's theme, the Human Rights Commission has just released a solid chunk of empirical evidence on the labour market in New Zealand. What next? National Conversation about Work is based on interviews with over 3,000 employers and employees across the entire country, and has some interesting and disturbing findings. On the first one, they found that workers are not slackers; rather than seeing work as a burden, most saw it as a vital part of their lives and a source of wellbeing; they were proud of what they did, generally enjoyed it, and made sacrifices for the business they were in. So much for the government's basis for its petty fascism over sick leave.

At the same time, the HRC also found a culture of long working hours, which interfered with life and family relationships as well as posing a threat to health and safety. This means that work is often taking over people's lives to an extent they are not comfortable with. Unlike most of the rest of the world, we have no legal limit on working hours, and no legislated disincentive in the form of statutory overtime; imposing them would prevent this from happening.

But the really disturbing stuff is about gender discrimination and pay equity. In 2010, women are still being paid less than men. And its a problem even in the state sector (which has had a statutory duty to end this discrimination for almost forty years):

Discrepancies in starting salaries between men and women were found in many organisations in the state sector, in apparent breach of the Equal Pay Act. Women in the private sector advised us that this was also a problem for them. Lack of transparency about salaries, however, made it very difficult to raise awareness about pay inequality. There was little confidence in existing mechanisms to challenge gender pay inequalities.
One of the suggested solutions to this was greater pay transparency. One interviewee noted that women are strongly discouraged from discussing their salaries, which means they have no way of knowing if discrimination is occurring. The HRC doesn't make a specific recommendation about this, but one solution overseas is to legislate to give workers a statutory right to compare their pay for the purposes of uncovering discrimination, overriding any secrecy clause in an employment contract. That seems like a good start.

Finally, there's some good stuff about the need for affordable, quality early childhood education in order to boost employment access for parents. This doesn't just affect women - the report notes that on the West Coast, the lack of ECE means employers can't retain staff, because their spouses can't get childcare, meaning they can't work, meaning they leave for somewhere with proper services. Its apparently a problem across provincial New Zealand, and the HRC recommends that the government step in to ensure equality of access. Some of the people they interview go further, suggesting that ECE be made a tax-deductible expense. That's one way of fixing it, but I think it addresses only part of the problem. ECE is vital to giving people a good start in life. It irons out inequalities, ensures better outcomes in employment, and is essential to allowing full workplace participation by women. Its at least as important as primary and secondary education, and we should be adopting the same model: free, universal government provision. Anything less is just subsidising private profit.

Unfortunately, with the expansion of 90 day trial periods, the disestablishment of the government pay equity unit, and attempts to kill off 20 hours free ECE, the government seems to be moving in exactly the wrong direction on all of this.

National Radio has an interesting interview with Judy Macgregor, EEO Commissioner, which discusses the report. You can listen to it here [audio]