Annie Newman: Decent Work post-COVID
This article by E tū Assistant National Secretary Annie Newman was originally published on The Standard.
Author Arundati Roy has described the pandemic as a forced break with the past, “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”
If we are indeed moving from one world to the next, the question is, who will shape that new world?
The battleground of COVID-19 has done many things. One thing is certain. It has exposed failures in our fragile democracy. As a society, we need courage to face those failures and build something new. Ensuring that new is also better depends on including the voices of workers.
The COVID battleground left the voices of community carers out of the decision-making that would ensure safety for both them and us.
The battleground provided no just transition to much needed front line positions for workers made redundant in aviation.
It offered no protection for cleaners whose near minimum wage incomes were slashed to the 80% subsidy levels, creating deep hardship for families.
As our nation emerged from another battleground, between 1942 and 1949, an Economic Stabilisation Commission was put in place to recommend economic measures to Government, including industry development and transition to a post-war economy. This commission brought together the Secretary of the Treasury, a representative of NZ producers, and a representative of the union movement.
We have developed inclusive strategies in the past and, when we cross the threshold into the post COVID world, we can and must do it again.
The role of the state in safeguarding our wellbeing, the role of the funder of services in taking responsibility for the lives of those delivering services, and the role of workers in contributing to the new economy are all critical to real and positive change.
The state can act now to safeguard the wellbeing of workers. Our government can ensure a just transition for redundant aviation workers and a bright future for our national carrier.
Currently our “Air New Zealanders” wait at the gates to see if the planes will ever fly again while the CE and his board scratch out their vision. A vison for what? A low-cost domestic airline where workers receive Walmart wages?
We can only safeguard the wellbeing of these workers by including them in the shape of the future of their much-loved airline. Doing so is good for them and all New Zealanders.
The state can ensure workers are given a voice through industry agreements that not only set standards for employment but which also ensure an inclusive approach to the development of sectors, such as cleaning and care work.
New Zealand has already started this discussion with Fair Pay Agreements. Workers have knowledge that can contribute to wise decision-making and if their voices had been heard in the current crisis, the battle for personal protective equipment in care and support services, for example, would have been resolved long ago.
Funders of services can start taking responsibility for the lives of those delivering services now. The thousands of contracted cleaners delivering “essential services” under COVID-19 can be valued with the Living Wage, instead of abandoned by government in the contracted economy, paid 80% of their near minimum wage, and left to struggle to feed themselves and their families.
This can only be achieved in the post-COVID economy when funders of services are bolted to the supply chain for which they are responsible, with a policy of social procurement.
Transparent processes and inclusion of all stakeholders in the procurement arrangements of the state is what protects the most vulnerable on the frontline.
Democracy creates a space for the market, civil society and the government but it doesn’t guarantee a balance between these spheres. That is government’s role. Right now, there is an opportunity for our government to do more than protect the future of business; it can address the imbalance in our democracy where the market dominates the agenda. It can value the contribution of ordinary people and their organisations to the future of our nation by seating them at the top table of business, industry and government.
Nothing is really future proofed in a democracy, given we vote every three years. But let’s prove that out of the ashes of COVID-19, there is a future for democracy and that we can create a new consensus around the role of the state. That for all its faults, it is there to safeguard the wellbeing of the citizenry because that is exactly what we have looked to it to do in this crisis.
Let’s have a consensus that a civilised society is one where workers’ knowledge is valued at the board table, where public money always provides for a Living Wage and decent work, and where government is responsible and accountable for those they fund to work on our frontline.
Kindness is not absent in the current management of this crisis, but neither should it be absent in the construction of our future.
Kindness is not just a feeling though. It is action that delivers equity, justice and hope as we step though the portal between one world and the next.