Helen Clark's Address To CTU Conference

Published: Thu 23 Oct 2003 11:59 AM
Rt Hon Helen Clark Prime Minister Keynote Address to COUNCIL OF TRADE UNIONS' BIENNIAL CONFERENCE
Michael Fowler Centre Wellington
11.30 am Thursday, 23 October 2003
Thank you once again for inviting me to speak to this biennial conference. j At the outset, I would like to express my personal thanks and those of my colleagues in government for the contribution the CTU and its officers and affiliates have made to the policy making process. The CTU rightly takes a broad view of which issues affect working people. That sees the organisation contributing on everything from economic development and trade to employment relations and social policy. Your contribution has been generous and influential, and we look forward to continuing to work on a wide range of issues with you.
The theme for this conference, “A strong voice for working people”, is an accurate reflection of both the strong and united union movement you have been rebuilding over the past four years, and of your strong voice in public policy making. While we will not always agree on every detail of every policy, your members can be proud of what you have achieved and I am proud of what we are achieving together as social partners.
I would like to acknowledge the contribution of Paul Goulter during his time as General Secretary of the CTU and during the critical time of advocating for and bedding in the new employment relations legislation. I would also like to congratulate Ross and Carol on their re-election to their positions; to thank Darien for her contribution as vice-president over the past four years; and to congratulate Helen Kelly on her election as vice-president. The CTU leadership remains in good and steady hands.
Your conference programme reflects many of the current issues and challenges facing working people in New Zealand today.
Those challenges are diverse, just as New Zealanders are increasingly diverse. Tolerance and mutual respect are very important societal values, and I commend the CTU’s approach to celebrating that diversity in the conference programme.
Margaret Wilson opened the conference yesterday with a focus on two key pieces of legislation, the Employment Relations Act and the new Health and Safety in Employment Act.
Both these Acts provide a framework within which new progressive relationships between employers and unions can be developed. These Acts are the cornerstones of the new industrial relations environment.
The CTU and its affiliates have strongly and consistently signalled a willingness to develop new relationships and joint strategies appropriate to the workplaces of the 21st century.
The programme we have to establish a stronger foundation for workers' rights is progressing, as set out in our 1999 and 2002 election policies, and in the 1999 and 2002 Speeches from the Throne which set out the government's three year programmes.
The Employment Relations Act was designed explicitly to promote collective bargaining, and by association to recognise the need for unions in the workplace and the economy.
Rebuilding a collective bargaining ethos was always going to take time and energy, and the recognition by all parties of the intent of the Act.
The recently completed review of the Act’s first three years has shown that while some elements, such as mediation are working well there are other areas where the failure to recognise fully the rights workers have to bargain collectively is impeding the objective of promoting collective bargaining.
Amendments to the Act will be introduced shortly, and will add new supports for workers and unions in achieving good faith bargaining arrangements.
The difficult issue of transfer of undertakings will also be addressed.
It is realistic to assume that any change at all in these areas will come under attack from predictable quarters. How disappointing it must be to them that the Employment Relations Act has been such a success, and indeed a stabilising influence in employment relations ! The more the good faith basis of the Act is accepted, the better I believe workplace relations will be. And it is interesting to note that the improved workplace legislation has been in place at the same time as unemployment has dropped to a sixteen year low at 4.7 percent – contrary to the predictions of the prophets of doom.
The debate over the passage of the new health and safety legislation was also intense. I do appreciate the leadership the CTU gave on the issue and the support it gave the Minister of Labour.
It is important that investment in good health and safety in the workplace is seen as an investment in a company’s most valuable asset, its people, and not as just another tiresome compliance cost.
The successful corporations around the world, in the higher quality and value end of the market to which we aspire, are those which invest in health and safety and see it as an integral part of good business practice.
The international evidence is also clear that effective worker and union participation can significantly improve health and safety performance. That is why workplace representatives are a central part of the new legislation.
I applaud the CTU’s initiative in developing a joint venture training organisation with ACC, and I hope that business will see this as the positive and constructive initiative it is intended to be. Put bluntly, the current level of workplace injury and fatalities is unacceptable, and we need to tackle the problems jointly.
And, if the spin off from the organising and training work being done around health and safety is that more workers join unions, then I think that will be of benefit to the economy, as well as being an acknowledgement of the value of the work unions do to promote health and safety at work.
The conference session on “Unions and Government” gives an opportunity to focus on the effective role which the CTU plays. It is an advocate and voice not only for union members, but also for other working New Zealanders and their families. And it is important that you keep campaigning for the measures you support. The opponents don't intend to fade away, and nor should you !
It is important for us to reflect periodically on what has been achieved jointly by the industrial and political arms of the labour movement, and by the broader social movement with which we work.
And it’s important that we create opportunities for dialogue with each other. The Senior Ministers Forum with the CTU last year, and the very well attended regional union forum in Palmerston North earlier this year, both provide good models for engagement.
I am keen to see more regional fora next year so that the dialogue between the union movement and government is accessible to more delegates.
Through such dialogue, we can together build support for the ongoing programme of rebuilding an economy and a society which was sorely stressed by the unbalanced policies of an earlier era.
Our aim is to move New Zealand up both the economic and social league tables by harnessing the contribution and skills of all parts of the country. A modern and progressive employment relations environment is a precondition for that progress.
Another precondition is the development of a highly skilled workforce, and that too benefits from an organised workforce, mobilised around key goals.
Our government has put a tremendous emphasis on workplace training. The transition from school to work and the continual skill enhancement of older workers have been central to our industry training policy and to the initiatives in tertiary education more generally.
Modern apprenticeships, a key union and Labour strategy, were introduced at a stage when our target of 3000 places was seen as challenging. As you know that target has long been reached and extended. This year’s Budget allocated funding for 7,500 apprenticeships by June 2006. We have already passed 5000. The Budget also announced an extra $85 million over four years for industry training.
I believe that a stronger training culture has developed in much of our industry. That can only be helped by the Skill New Zealand tripartite promotion campaign, in which the CTU is a vital partner.
Putting in place processes and structures which enable social partners to be involved in regional, sectoral, and industry development has required a range of new initiatives and discussions.
Unions have become involved in activities as diverse as discussions on productivity, the public sector and health tripartite forums, the innovation taskforces, and sector strategies in the wood industry and in seafood processing.
Social partnership initiatives like these are good examples of an inclusive approach to economic and social development. The Government firmly believes that there are social dimensions to business and industry. We reject the 1990s approach that “shareholder value” is the only consideration for business.
The purpose of economic and social life cannot be just to play host to successful business. The maximisation of shareholder value and the single-minded pursuit of economic efficiency must not become ends in themselves.
Other human values – the need to sustain families, to treat people equally, to safeguard the environment, and to foster creativity, dignity and fairness in the workplace – also require expression. These are surely the ends to which a nation's successful economic activity is but the means.
An effective public sector is also a requirement of a cohesive society. For it to be effective, both adequate funding and committed employees are critical. In many areas of the public sector, ministers have been able to work with unions to discuss quality, staffing, and capacity issues. The partnership protocol signed with the PSA was a landmark agreement, as we do aspire to have relationships based on mutual respect with the public sector unions.
The CTU and the government both recognise that working conditions are built on a foundation of rights which establish the minimum expectations of society, and that for some workers these foundations will be their principal protection. Modernising and increasing the minimum wage is a tool that we have used and will continue to use strategically to support the most vulnerable in society.
Last year your “30 Families Report” provided a revealing insight into the lives of 30 working families and the stresses which the Employment Contracts Act era imposed on them. I note that you will be releasing a second work/life balance report at this Conference, and it will be a valuable contribution to the government’s substantial programme of work on work/life balance.
Very important work is also being undertaken by the Pay and Employment Equity Task Force, and I acknowledge the valuable contribution which unions are making to it through the CTU.
Paid Parental Leave was introduced in our first term in office. It has proved popular, with good take up rates, and should lead to improved health for parents and children. I hope to see further improvements to the scheme this term.
Another important step forward has been the modernisation and upgrading of entitlements in the Holidays Act. The new Act will provide a minimum code of entitlements, including pay at time and a half as well as a day in lieu for working on a public holiday for those who would have normally worked the day; the right to accumulate sick/domestic leave for up to twenty days; and a separate entitlement of tangihanga/bereavement leave of three days for family and specified whanau.
The CTU campaigned vigorously for these improvements. The changes recognise the importance of family responsibilities, and we can look forward to the new provisions coming into force in the new year.
The CTU has also campaigned in support of four weeks minimum annual leave. It has never been Labour’s policy to introduce that improvement in its second term in government, because we have given higher priority to other initiatives benefiting workers and their families. But of course we acknowledge the importance of adequate annual leave in ensuring that workers get proper rest and time for their families and communities, and we acknowledge the increased productivity and social benefit which can flow from enhanced annual leave.
It has been 30 years since minimum annual leave for all workers was increased to three weeks. A lot has changed in the labour market in that time. Australia with whom we compete for skilled labour has had a minimum of four weeks for a number of years.
The Government is now close to making decisions on what its policy on annual holidays will be for the post 2005 period.
Re-building a unionised workforce is a central feature of your conference programme. The Government supports your work in building a modern union movement with a wide social movement focus. That is because we recognise the vital role the union movement has to play in democratic societies.
The passage of the forthcoming amendments to the Employment Relations Act cannot guarantee growth in union membership, but they will enable unions to be more effective and thereby give a stronger basis for recruitment. Already, since 1999, membership numbers are up by 10.5 per cent. Our overall rate of union density is 21.7 per cent – rather lower than in the United Kingdom but much higher than in the United States.
While it takes time to rebuild, I do believe the strategic approach the CTU and its affiliates are taking to rebuild the movement will succeed.
A survey earlier this year suggested that there may be up to sixteen per cent of workers who wish to become union members, but haven’t yet done so for various reasons. This indicates the potential for membership growth even in the short term.
Your conference programme finishes with a very interesting panel discussion on the challenges of globalisation to union work in a changing world, which Guy Ryder, Sharon Burrow and Peter Conway will all have well informed perspectives on.
In a speech I gave in Bangkok on Monday I called yet again for APEC to adopt the kind of social partnership approach practised at the OECD, where trade union and business advisory councils work side by side. That does help get more balanced policy debate and outcomes.
The CTU has made an important contribution to debate on international issues, including trade. The Government has developed a trade and labour framework and will keep raising the issue in bilateral and multilateral trade discussions.
We also look forward to the forthcoming report of the ILO World Commission on the Social Dimensions of Globalisation.
In my speech today, I have highlighted the contribution the CTU is making to public policy debate and to real improvements in policies affecting working people and their families.
I know that your voice will continue to be heard, and I believe that mechanisms are increasingly in place for it to be heard.
Turning around an economy and a society which has taken the shocks ours did over many years takes a lot of time and a lot of hard work. But I believe that working together we are getting results, and I look forward to your continuing involvement.
I wish you a successful conference.

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