New Zealand: Hospital workers beat Australian bully

On the evening of July 24, New Zealand hospital workers claimed a major victory against the aggressive industrial tactics of Australian company Spotless Services.

Spotless had locked out around 800 orderlies, cooks and cleaners from 12 hospitals for nine days. But the company caved in on July 24 and agreed to pass on the same terms and conditions that had already been negotiated with the District Health Boards and the other three big cleaning contractors — OCS, ISS and Compas — several weeks ago.

The previous day, the Employment Court ruled that the lockouts were illegal. The Service and Food Workers Union Nga Ringa Tota (SFWU) has lodged a claim with the Employment Court for Spotless to pay workers the wages they lost during the lockout.

All Spotless workers will receive pay increases of up to 27% as a result of the agreement, increasing the hourly wage by $3 to NZ$14.25 per hour.

Spotless used the brutal lockout tactic against the workers when they threatened strike action to force Spotless to sign up to an agreement that all of the other hospital contractors had already agreed to. The New Zealand government had already increased hospital budgets by $16 million to improve the wages of low-wage service workers in public hospitals.

Although the issue of wages has been resolved, there are other outstanding issues that the SFWU wants to resolve, including shift provisions, sick leave and other allowances. Spotless has 18 separate agreements covering different hospitals with different conditions in each agreement. The SFWU is campaigning for common conditions across sites to be standardised into a single employer collective agreement.

Inez Galvin, a locked-out hospital worker from Rotorua, told the July 19 Daily Post that she had worked for Rotorua Hospital for 20 years. In that time, she had only received one pay increase. The pay increase was about two years ago when the government increased the minimum wage from $10.20 to $11.25 per hour.

Galvin says that it is not enough pay for the work she does. "We have to deal with all sorts of things most people would turn their backs on — stuff like infections, vomit, blood. I have had an AIDS and hepatitis scare after I was pricked by a used needle a few years ago. It was a pretty stressful time."

New Zealand Council of Trade Unions president Ross Wilson was one of many unionists across New Zealand who paid tribute to the hospital workers for standing up to Spotless's bullying tactics: "Hospital kitchen staff, orderlies and cleaners are some of the poorest paid workers in the country ... These workers stood strong collectively in their union and wouldn't let the company starve them back to work."

Unions have noticed a pattern of large Australian-owned companies using more aggressive tactics to try and block industrial action in New Zealand.

During the Spotless lockout, another Australian company, Leighton Contractors, had its subsidiary HWE Mining lock out 200 workers from a coalmine near Huntley on July 18.

HWE Mining operates the mining business for the state-owned coalmining company Solid Energy. The workers were locked out when they began a go-slow and overtime ban in support of a nationwide pay claim involving 800 coalminers employed by Solid Energy and its contractors.

The lockout of the coalminers sparked strikes at Solid Energy mines nationwide. Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union national secretary Andrew Little says that the lockout was broken after three days because of the huge support from members around the country. Workers won the wage rise and improved conditions that they were after.

In 2006, Woolworths' New Zealand subsidiary Progressive Enterprises locked supermarket distribution workers out of their jobs for more than five weeks. With massive public support for the National Distribution Union members, who stood strong during the dispute, the workers scored a victory.