Industrial conflict looms in NZ

Issue 

By Steve Painter

Trouble is brewing over a government ban on national collective employment contracts in the New Zealand health service. National Party Labour Minister Bill Birch outlined the ban in a March 26 address to area health board managers. The government is pursuing cuts to overtime and penalty rates.

The conflict in the health services is one of a number of battles looming as existing wage contracts expire in mid-June. The country's industrial system has traditionally revolved around an annual "wage round", and union officials are expecting sharp clashes in the coming round.

Ian Powell of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists says the latest ruling goes even further than the already draconian Employment Contracts Act, which imposes severe restrictions on trade unions. Powell says the act "states that the type of contract, as well as the contents of the contract, is a matter of negotiation".

Powell says Birch's ruling actually contradicts the National Party's commitment to labour market flexibility: "True flexibility should involve negotiating the type of contract most relevant to the employees and employers concerned. In some cases a national contract may be the most appropriate and flexible outcome." Birch's speech to the managers "reads like a war cry", says Powell.