Criticism as support worker pay Bill passed

Invercargill National MP Penny Simmonds and Dunedin National list MP Michael Woodhouse (below)...
Invercargill National MP Penny Simmonds and Dunedin National list MP Michael Woodhouse (below) vote, reluctantly, for the Support Workers (Pay Equity) Settlements Amendment Act. PHOTO: PARLIAMENT
Parliament had one of those rare situations on Wednesday when almost every MP voted in favour of a Bill, but almost all of them were unhappy about it.

What is now the Support Workers (Pay Equity) Settlements Amendment Act gives home-care and support workers — a much put-upon workforce which cares diligently for the nation’s most needy — a pay rise, guarantees their working conditions and preserves their right to push forward a pay equity claim.

So, what’s not to like?

Well, plenty as it transpired.

The original Act being amended was passed in 2017 by the then National government, and was its response to the Supreme Court decision in the case between aged-care worker Kristine Bartlett and her employer.

What was initially a claim by Ms Bartlett that her lower rate of pay was a form of gender discrimination against those in her predominantly female workforce became a much wider issue of pay equity across 65,000 workers in aged-care and disability and home support services.

The 2017 Act implemented the Government’s response to the Supreme Court decision, but preserved the workers’ right to take that pay equity claim further.

It contained what at the time must have seemed a perfectly reasonable sunset clause which gave five years for that claim to be progressed and settled ... except, for various reasons, it has not.

Next week, that sunset clause would have sunk beyond the horizon, meaning those many workers would have reverted to their historic pay rates and working conditions without their pay equity claim being settled, a situation no-one wanted.

Now, you might have thought that someone should have seen this coming — maybe anytime in the previous five years — and altered the law accordingly.

Certainly National did, asking why no-one on the other side of the House had set a calendar reminder.

While this was all jolly good banter, Labour had — of course — been aware that the deadline was looming.

But it had failed to navigate its way to an agreement, which would have avoided having to change the law at about 11.57pm.

The Government swallowed its pride and opted to push through all stages of the Act under urgency on Wednesday.

The business committee, the all-party panel which makes determinations about how the House will run, was told on Tuesday afternoon what was planned for the following afternoon.

Once they found out E tu, the New Zealand Nurses Organisation and the Public Service Association — the unions which represent these workers — were furious and, as the debate began, put out an angry press release which condemned the "measly" pay rise involved and process involved in setting it.

Back in Parliament, National had decided to support the Bill, but was taking up every second available of its 10-minute calls slamming the process.

Labour’s MPs, meanwhile, were offering short speeches to try to get the whole humiliating affair over with as soon as possible.

The Green Party was the only one to oppose the Act throughout, saying it was "beyond disappointing" that Labour had not sorted this mess out sooner.

At the vanguard of National’s charge were Dunedin list MP Michael Woodhouse and Invercargill MP Penny Simmonds.

Mr Woodhouse was workplace relations minister when the 2017 law was passed and is well familiar with the issues involved, while Ms Simmonds — the party’s disability issues spokeswoman — is a quick study, and well-briefed on the issues which face these workers.

"These so-called bastions of the working class are throwing crumbs at this vital workforce and telling them to be quiet for another 18 months," Mr Woodhouse thundered.

"That is a disgrace, and it absolutely sticks in the craw for my party to support this Bill, although we will, and we'll do it despite that disappointment, anger and frustration, and despite another terrible process."

This placed Mr Woodhouse and his colleagues in the unusual position of aligning themselves with the unions, prompting scornful assertions from Labour that National was setting themselves up as working-class heroes.

Which bothered Ms Simmonds not one jot.

"This Labour Government, steeped in union organisers, has taken away the voice of the unions. It's unbelievable," she said.

"They've taken away the voice of the workers. No select committee process — we're standing here doing it under urgency because there is no select committee process, and so there is no opportunity for them to say, ‘Oh, actually we don't think full 4.6% [pay rise] over 18 months is good enough. It's well below inflation’."

Eventually, after a protracted debate, the Act passed, but this was only the latest battle in an increasingly lengthy war.

The doctor is busy

The taxpayer got their money’s worth from Dunedin Labour MP Dr David Clark this week.

Quite apart from all his other duties, Dr Clark steered various Bills through a second reading, committee stages and a first reading on Tuesday, and answered a question and kicked off the committee stages of the Commerce (Grocery Sector Covenants) Amendment Bill on Wednesday.

On Thursday, the first three Bills on the order paper were all in Dr Clark’s name, and he was no doubt relieved that Kris Faafoi’s valedictory speech that afternoon eased his workload a touch.

What a barker

At the bottom of Parliament’s order paper lurk members’ notices of motion, where MPs congratulate constituents for things like turning 100 or marking a diamond wedding anniversary.

A more unusual motion was moved this week by Labour list MP Marja Lubeck this week though: "That the House congratulate Scott McRae and his dog Cory on gaining first place in a top sheepdog trialling competition held in Alexandra (Northern Otago) recently, and wish Scott and Cory all the best for future sheepdog trials."

No doubt Cory will be greatly heartened by Parliament’s acknowledgement of his feats.

Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter