The term ‘Decent Work’ is used by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and other international bodies to capture some basic global standards to which all countries should adhere. It is the product of tripartite engagement that settled on a concept to capture income, hours of work, quality of work environment, and the voice of workers through their unions.
The ILO brings together employer, union, and government voices, modelling the balance sought in democracies between the market, civil society, and the state. This balance, however, is not reflected in our own country where campaigning for Decent Work standards remains as important now as when deregulation of the economy first transformed employment relations in 1991 with the Employment Contracts Act. Then the market dominated workplace relationships, as private sector employers asserted power over individual workers to secure the terms and conditions they desired, bolstered by high unemployment that would check any bargaining power they might fancy themselves having. Unemployed workers stood waiting at the door for their jobs should their price be too high. With unions written out of the law and in retreat, only the Government could set standards to stop the race to the bottom – and the once invisible minimum code sprung to life as the only measure left between employee and employer to guard against destitution. But those standards were meagre.
Joining the state as great protectors of workers, were the legal agencies. They not only stepped in to enforce the law for individual workers in the market, but they challenged unjust laws, from union access to lockouts, from defining the nature of work to recovering wages for sleepovers. The Employment Relations Act 2000 restored unions to the law and required good faith behaviours, but litigation lived on as the go-to option for progressing the workforces’ collective rights, whether that was equal pay or contractor rights. It was not the role of collective bargaining, still underpinned in law by individual rights. Private sector unions were not growing and remained tied up with advocacy for individuals and enterprises, because that’s where the law allowed them to be. Fortunately, since 2017, the state is emerging as an active support for working people with large increases in the statutory minimum wage, additional public holidays and sick leave, and improvements in parental leave, among other rights.
The social democratic balance requires more than a re-emergent state and a powerful market; it also requires and strong civil society, represented in employment relations by unions. Decent Work in Aotearoa needs a resurgent private sector union movement. One way to do this is through Fair Pay Agreements, where sector standards are negotiated by the employer and union representatives on behalf of all workers in that sector, union or not. With the state sword of arbitration over the heads of negotiators, meaningful bargaining and decent outcomes are expected for the most vulnerable workers in society. In this way, unions can move from defaulting to litigation for individuals to collective negotiation by the parties to the employment relationship; negotiation enabled by the regulatory role of the state.
Any enduring system that models the tripartism of progressive democracies around the world requires a regulatory nest that provides the industrial relations expertise, advice, and support absent from within the state agency MBIE, for many years now. The task ahead is to embed a new institution grounded in tripartism, resourced by the state, and ensuring that Aotearoa can model the right balance between state, market, and civil society needed for delivering Decent Work.