One of the most pervasive yet deluded myths of our economic system is that employers and employees negotiate contracts as equals.
In reality, employers have an advantage at the bargaining table and most workers simply sign the paper stuck in front of us in order to get a job, pay the bills and keep a roof over our heads.
Simon Bennett is the chief executive of AWF Madison, a labour hire agency which made a profit last year of over $5 million. Last weekend an opinion piece was published under his name in the NZ Herald.
He wants you to believe his company, a giant in its sector, is in fact the victim of unfair allegations of worker exploitation and parasitic ticket clipping.
Bennett's opinion piece is packed full of corporate buzzwords, but light on detail. He would have you accept most temporary workers are happy with their lot, but he doesn't give you a single example to chew on.
What he does provide is the following plaintive gripe: "It was worrying that recently the PSA Union [referred] to the temporary workforce as a 'second-class workforce', which is both demeaning and ignores the reality of the labour market."
What we actually said is people employed by Inland Revenue via Madison are treated unfairly. They are hard-working, skilled and valued by their colleagues at Inland Revenue, and their terms of employment should reflect this.
Bennett should probably spend less time worrying about media comments we made in January, and more time worrying about the growing number of Madison workers organising to challenge their treatment at the hands of his company and its partners.
Senior management at Inland Revenue and their counterparts at Madison use temp workers as a second-class workforce, despite the workers doing a first-class job. This is the heart of the problem, and no amount of HR-speak can distract from it. Madison workers at Inland Revenue have for years been paid less than the people they sit next to, but for years they have done the same or comparable work.
They are usually told their contract will last for a specified time period, perhaps a year or so, but time and time again when it expires they are taken aside by a Madison supervisor and told they shall receive an extension of one month. Then another month. Then another month. Then, perhaps another one, or perhaps not. Sometimes a couple of months after being let go, they are rehired for a month or two, only to be let go again.
Some Madison workers at Inland Revenue have endured the insecurity and anxiety of monthly extensions for two years.
This is not what they want. Most Madison workers apply for full time, permanent roles at Inland Revenue when these become available, but only a small percentage are chosen.
Most of them see their temporary relationship with Madison as a stepping stone to permanent employment.
Bennett claims "we value our contingent workforce as much as we value the permanent candidates we deal with … individuals place different value on different aspects of jobs and are often more concerned about income security than job security".
This is a disconnected perspective. For most working people in the real world, your income is the pay cheque you receive from your job. Income security and job security are one and the same.
Over 240 workers employed by Inland Revenue via Madison have joined our union because they do not feel valued by Bennett and his colleagues.
It became painfully clear their permanently employed colleagues received better pay and conditions, thanks to the terms of the PSA collective agreement.
As a result of Madison workers organising together and filing legal proceedings to demand equal and fair treatment, the recruitment agency has been forced to significantly increase starting rates to $21.15 per hour.
This is progress, and the workers should be proud they fought for it and won. But even with this improvement, their pay and conditions lag behind those of colleagues they work alongside.
As is so often the case, Madison workers are unhappy about more than just pay. They want to be treated with respect and dignity, but Madison cares more about extracting every possible dollar of profit at their expense.
As 2019 drew to a close, Inland Revenue teams around New Zealand shared Christmas lunches together and exchanged Secret Santa gifts.
Not the Madison workers. They weren't allowed to take part. In some cities, they had to stay in the office and staff the phones while colleagues they had worked alongside every day for over a year went for Christmas lunch. In other cities, Madison graciously allowed them to eat Christmas lunch, but ordered them to make up the time by staying at work for another hour after non-Madison colleagues went home.
When bosses wax lyrical about flexibility and freedom, we should ask the age-old question. Cui bono? Who benefits? Does any worker really choose freely to get paid less, to not receive overtime or meal allowances?
Bennett and his counterparts at Inland Revenue are treating temporary employees as a second-class workforce. The workers are fighting back, and with the full support of the PSA they will gain the respect and dignity we all deserve.
- Kerry Davies is Public Service Association (PSA) National Secretary.