Doing Us All A Favour: Since the 1990s, a conviction has taken hold in the minds of New Zealand employers that they are the country’s biggest philanthropists. Far from acknowledging their role in the processes of ruthless commercial exchange, these employers speak of themselves as the selfless creators of jobs for their fellow citizens. Not for profit, you understand, but out of the goodness of their big, generous hearts.
A FEW YEARS AGO, Helen Kelly delivered one of the best speeches I had ever heard at a Labour Party Conference. It was on the subject of employers. The gist of her address was that, since the 1990s, a conviction had taken hold in the minds of New Zealand employers that they were the country’s biggest philanthropists. Far from acknowledging their role in the processes of ruthless commercial exchange, these employers spoke of themselves as the selfless creators of jobs for their fellow citizens. Not for profit, you understand, but out of the goodness of their big, generous hearts.
Trade unions, in the opinion of these unsung social heroes, were doing everything possible to thwart the employers unbounded philanthropy. These subversive organisations were determined to prevent the employing class from carrying on their good works. Somehow, these miscreant socialists had got it into their heads that capitalism was about exploitation. Such complete nonsense! As if all that unstinting effort could be expended in the name of something as vulgar as making money!
It was a great speech.
I was reminded of Helen’s insights only this morning as I read an opinion piece penned by Leicester Gouwland (NZ Herald, Business Section, 5/3/18) a partner in the accounting and financial services firm, Crowe Horwarth. Gouwland’s bugbear du jour was the Labour-NZF-Green government’s legislation abolishing the 90-day trial period in businesses employing more than 20 people.
He began his argument by citing the less-than-supportive responses to the government’s legislation from both the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and the Treasury. Why did the government ignore their advice? And why did it give them so little time to prepare it?
To anyone not already sold on neoliberalism, the answers to those questions are blindingly obvious. Gouwland’s indignation is, however, a useful pointer to just how much reliance employers now place on the agencies of the state to defend the “reforms” of the 1980s and 90s from any attempt to roll them back.
These comments were only the hors d’oeuvres to Gouwland’s feast, however. The main course was delivered in his response to the revelation (from no less a source than the 2014/15 National Survey of Employers) that 24 percent of workers taken on under the 90-day rule were dismissed during the period of the trial.
Just think about that. One worker in four was dismissed from their job arbitrarily and without the opportunity for legal redress.
Now read Gouwland’s interpretation of his astonishing statistic.
“This high percentage suggests the trial period is working and highlights the risk that employers take. It also suggests limiting its use will cost employers significant time and money to terminate these employees.”
Seldom have I encountered a more damning illustration of the employers’ mindset in relation to the rights of their employees. Workers are not there to be trained, assisted, counselled and, where all of the foregoing interventions have proved fruitless, warned that any further refusals to amend their behaviour will put their continued employment at risk. No, they are simply there to be “terminated”.
That the Employment Court has ruled over and over again that it is unlawful for employers to arbitrarily or constructively dismiss their workers, makes not the slightest difference to the employers who, as Helen Kelly so wryly pointed out, genuinely believe they are doing their workers a favour by “giving” them a job.
Logically-speaking, to “give” someone a job implies that the normal contractual relationship between “master” and “servant” has been by-passed. Someone who has been “given” a job is, presumably, not required to perform the labour that the job entails. Instead, the worker will be paid regardless of whether or not she fulfils her half of the bargain.
Now, this may happen when former politicians are installed on the boards of state-owned enterprises; or, when the clueless son of the boss is given a well-remunerated title without responsibility; but it almost never happens when someone applies to do a job of work essential to the efficient operation of the business – and its profits.
People are not “given” jobs, they are hired: and if the contract is one of service, then they cannot be dismissed without reasonable cause. The 90-day trial period was nothing more nor less than a legislative device for excusing the employers from their obligation to uphold and honour the contractual relationship with their employees.
Gouwland’s unwitting exposure of the employer mindset continues.
“An argument supporting the removal of the 90-day trial period is that it provides employee protection. It is hard to understand this argument as any non-performing employees will now need to go through a performance process. So where is the protection. Termination of employment is only delayed.”
Did Gouwland really just suggest that the purpose of the “performance process” is to facilitate the “termination of employment”?
Clearly, Mr Gouwland did not receive the memo about employers being the country’s biggest philanthropists. We miscreant socialists should, however, be grateful to the author of this extraordinary opinion piece. Seldom have workers been presented with a more compelling argument for joining a trade union!
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 6 March 2018.