Winston Peters, the great hope of the downtrodden?

Waiting for Winston. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Waiting for Winston. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
As a researcher in social and community work, I see the negative impact that problems with employment, income and housing can have on already stressed families.

This is why I am keen to see what the coalition parties decide to do about these issues, especially with policies that can have an immediate influence on employment and industrial relations.

I remember with anger how working people were treated by the governments of the 1980s and ’90s. The economy was restructured, but instead of everyone bearing the pain, it was working people that bore the brunt of the sacrifice.

By the early ’90s nearly 11% of the New Zealand workforce had been made unemployed, with Māori hit the hardest with 26% unemployment.

My father was a unionist when the 1990 National government brought in the Contract Wages Act, which led to employers banning unions from the workplace and supporting a heavy-handed bargaining approach. My father told me what happened at his factory.

The management came in and said words to the effect of "before we start negotiating, we just want to tell you that there are thousands of people out there who want your jobs. This is what we are offering, take it or go". What they were offering included a serious loss of pay and conditions.

This was all part of the strategy to begin deregulating the labour markets. The idea was to open up jobs to competition so that eventually, if someone was willing to do your job for lower wages, fewer holidays, less sick leave etc, then the employer would be free to employ them.

For a number of reasons, this did not come to fruition. However, the next time National came into power in 2008, it raised its head on election night and made my blood run cold. Act’s Roger Douglas was celebrating his return to Parliament and stated that he was going to finish what they had started, including deregulating the labour markets.

The saving grace that night was John Key’s first publicly announced decision as Prime Minister. On his way to the podium to celebrate his win, he stated, "Roger Douglas will not be in my Cabinet". I found this a huge relief because it meant that we were not looking at the sort of callousness towards the lower-paid that we had seen in the early 1990s.

Employment issues have largely flown under the radar during this latest election. National campaigned on repealing the Fair Pay legislation that made it easier for low-paid workers to negotiate better pay and working conditions. They also stated their intension to bring back 90-day trial periods for new employees.

While many unions have actively campaigned against this, it will hopefully give employers more confidence to take a risk on someone they may have overlooked before, such as someone with few skills or recently released from prison.

What worries me is Act New Zealand. This year they have mostly been disciplined, sticking to their populist rhetoric and prioritising picking up anti-Māori and anti-farming regulation votes. But I am constantly suspicious that they will slide back to their anti-worker, free-market ideology, as they were funded by some very wealthy people who obviously want to become even wealthier.

One of the factors that prevent lower wages is that the unemployment rate is still historically low. This means that as employers are competing with one another for the same workers, some have to pay more than they want to to secure good workers.

There are a number of ways to lower wages in real terms, most of which involve having more workers than we need. One strategy is to bring in more overseas immigrants — especially from Third World countries, as they are used to lower wages.

Another is to turn the screws on beneficiaries and find ways of removing them from what we used to call, sickness, disability and single parent benefits.

Another tactic is limiting how long job-seekers (unemployed) can receive benefits, in the hope of making them desperate enough to accept lower wages. A further approach is to use contracting, in which lower-paid workers are seen as self-employed, and can be paid lower than the minimum wage.

My issue is not that some of these strategies are necessarily wrong in themselves, but that they may be used as a means to lower the wages of those who are already working.

It may be that Winston Peters is the unintentional saviour in this regard.

In many ways it was his objections to the economic policies of the 1990 National government that led to his formation of the New Zealand First party, and he could possibly argue that this also slowed the path to deregulating employment.

Who would have thought I would once again be pinning my hopes on Winston Peters?

— Anaru Eketone is an associate professor in social and community work at the University of Otago.