Working is a two way deal - unionist

In our final career13 opinion piece CTU president Helen Kelly pens a letter to a young woman just starting out in the workforce.

CTU president Helen Kelly says it is vital that those about to enter the workforce, especially women, are aware of their rights. Photo / Paul Estcourt
CTU president Helen Kelly says it is vital that those about to enter the workforce, especially women, are aware of their rights. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Dear Jane,

Starting out in the workforce for me was a time of opportunity, hope. I was given a lot of guidance and advice from my parents and peers in the union movement when I was starting out, and would like to share some of that with you now.

Sadly, many of the issues young workers faced when I was starting out remain. Some things have improved, but many things have got worse.

There is still an underlying discrimination that you are likely to encounter at some point in your career.

One of the most obvious and enduring ways you might experience this is in your pay packet. Although you may not know it because we Kiwis are particularly bad at talking about things such as money, research shows that as a woman you are likely to be paid less than your male colleagues at least at some point in your career.

If you work in a female-dominated workforce such as caring, librarians or social work, you are likely to be paid lower wages than men doing similar jobs.

Even if you undertake tertiary education and obtain a degree, research shows women are paid 6 per cent less in the first year and 17 per cent less than men after five years.

There are several things you can do to confront this, though. You can join your union (we campaign for pay equity and collectively bargain for fair wages); you can talk to colleagues and your boss about rectifying any discrepancies; you can make sure that as you progress in your career you do not add to the issue of the gender pay gap by paying people their worth.

As you enter the workforce, you need to be aware of your rights at work. You have the right to paid annual leave, to minimum wages, to sick leave, rest and meal breaks, the right not to be discriminated against and to paid parental leave and maternity leave if you have children. It is your right to join a union and to collectively bargain for your employment agreement. You also have the right to refuse to do anything that you feel might put you at risk.

You may also experience the promoted culture of deference towards employers. Sometimes this is seen in innocent enough ways - family and friends may speak of you being lucky to find a job, or that your bosses must be good people for taking you on.

At times, though, this deference may be less benevolent. You might be criticised for joining a union or challenging something unfair - you may be told you are biting the hand that feeds you and not to cause trouble. It is this kind of deference that perpetuates the "charitable" narrative that businesses are all good, well-meaning benefactors of society ... [and] makes it easy for Government to promote a low wage economy and the removal of work rights. It makes some work unsafe because workers feel reluctant to challenge dangerous work. This culture of deference has to change, and it starts with all of us.

The true nature of the employer-worker relationship is one of mutual dependence, and reciprocity. You are selling your time and skills and the employer compensates you for that time with pay. It is a good, honest exchange. You should never forget that, even when starting out.

The employment relationship is the basis for our employment legislation. When it works well and is based on mutual respect and understanding it is the basis for good, productive and flexible work. When it is unbalanced and on either the bosses' or the employees' terms alone thenit is not conducive to good, decent work.

Your union has a natural place in that relationship as the collective voice of the workers. If your workplace has a union, I encourage you to meet them, look at the collective and join up. United workers can achieve more.

I wish you all the best in your career. Remember that work is an important part of life, but it is not everything. Enjoy your job, enjoy your time off, and try to strike a balance that works for you. Always try to confront discrimination and stand up for your rights and others.

Yours sincerely,

Helen Kelly


Helen Kelly has been president of the CTU since 2007. She is the union's chief spokeswoman on a wide range of issues including economic development, employment law, climate change, social partnership and ACC. She is a qualified teacher and holds an LLB from Victoria University. It was in the teaching unions that her long professional involvement with the union movement began. She lives in Wellington.

- NZ Herald

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