CHCH report: Public meeting against zero-hour contracts

public meeting

Report by Matt Jones, reprinted from Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement (AWSM).

Fightback Wellington branch will hold a public forum on fighting zero-hour contracts and poverty wages on Sunday the 29th of March.

Over 50 people attended a public meeting held in Christchurch/Otautahi on the 2nd March to hear from workers and union organisers about the brutal reality of zero hour contracts. Chaired by Jared Phillips of the Dairy Workers Union and introduced by Ben Peterson Organiser of Unite Union we were treated to the stories of Unite Union member Rose Williams from the Wendy’s Restaurant chain and long standing Maritime Union delegate Mike Will.

Ben told us that in 2014 Unite Union asked their members what their life in the workplace was like. Over one thousand responded and the results surprised many. They discovered that the average hours worked was 25 hours at the minimum wage and more than half of the respondents needed 35 hours or more to meet their living costs. Those that were getting more than 40 hours per week were forced to drop their overtime allowance. Overtime allowances kick in when someone works more than 40 hours per week, they should receive their hourly rate plus a further half for every additional hour they work. In reality they are by being told to sign a waiver, or at times by not giving their consent at all, to allow the company to pay them at their ordinary rate. Unite had spent the previous two years fighting for a living wage, forcing the issue onto the front pages, what the survey results were telling the union was that without hours to work, the rate of pay arguably became a secondary issue.

The hours are not scarce in the industries Unite represent. Fast food, retail, hotels, cinema’s and security all suffer from incredibly high turnover rates. Fast food for example churns through 70 to 80% of its workforce on an annual basis alone. Why do the bosses continue to hire if their existing workforce are clambering for more hours? Power, that’s the only possible conclusion – hiring new workers requires advertising, interviews, inductions, training, administration and supplying clothing and equipment, in short it’s not a cheap process. Keeping your work force desperate and fearing to cause a stir by requesting a day off, taking sick days, demanding your holiday entitlement or saying no when you’re called to work with less than thirty minutes notice is exactly how these multi national corporates and franchise operators are running their businesses.

Rose Williams addressed the crowd telling her story of the recent strike held at her store. Wendy’s are in negotiations with Unite Union who took the company by surprise when their only South Island store took to the streets. She described how she was originally taken on as a full time worker, working more than fifty hours a week sixteen months ago. She is now down to 26 and only gets five days a week by working both Saturday and Sunday while having with no consecutive days off. When she works public holidays there is no day in lieu. There is no standard shift and as a result workplace bullying is rife, managers are literally using the rosters as disciplinary tools, baiting workers with the very means of survival.

Mike Will told us of his experiences with the local activist community during the past few years. He spent day and night at the Christchurch Occupy site in Hagley Park and witnessed the possibility of community organizing and direct democracy. He thanked the individual anarchists that were at the heart of the local chapter of Occupy and acknowledged the hard efforts that many from our scene put in during the emergency period of the Canterbury earthquakes. Many ears picked up at his mention of the short lived Otautahi Solidarity Network that was inspired by the Seattle Solidarity Network.

Mike’s words inspired figures from the union movement including Dave Bristow of First Union to stand up and hint heavily that there were early talks of a new way of organising within their union – something the writer of this article will be following up discussions in the near future.

The reality is the businesses that profit from zero hour contracts and paying minimum wage are taking the piss out of their workforce on several levels. Workplace bullying, insecurity and fear is topped off by a gut wrenching weekly phone call to the IRD to declare the inconsistent hours and irregular earnings worked in order to make ends meet. The multinationals make a killing by paying poverty wages and the taxpayer tops up the shortfall. TV3’s Campbell Live made the connection between zero hour contracts and kids turning up to schools without breakfast, lunch or basics such as footwear on the same night as the public meeting.

The floor was opened for people to ask questions and speak their mind. Networking and sharing resources was the theme of the night and the momentum will continue to build. The forum also discussed the idea of establishing a progressive network and regular meeting to discuss local progressive ideas and campaigns. The first Monday of every month at the WEA, 7pm will be the place to hear of the day’s issues and be inspired that you’re not alone when thinking it’s all on its head and the world’s gone mad – the question is, what are we gonna do about it?!

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