• Kevin O'Sullivan has been a bus driver for 38 years and is the current secretary of the Wellington Tramways Union.
The Herald's editorial call at New Year for prosperity for all is a good one and I'm all in favour of it as a bus driver and a unionist. But we need more than a growing economy to get there. We also need to make sure people and their families can get their share of that growth.
That's not just about wage minimums and safety nets and government top-ups like Working for Families. No, it's going to require changes to the way we do business. One big change we need is to stop competing by lowering Kiwi's incomes.
I've got to make a disclaimer here, I'm a union official and one of the 700 bus drivers in Wellington facing a massive cut in income because the regional council here has tendered its public transport service on cost.
This is a mature industry where the buses, the depots, the fuel, all cost more or less the same regardless of provider, which means there are only two ways for bus companies to compete. Reduce the payroll or reduce the service.
For more than a decade we've worked with the current provider, NZ Bus, to increase safety, to grow our drivers' terms and conditions and to increase efficiencies. The pay off has been that we've been able to maintain good solid middle incomes.
It used to be that way in Auckland too. And around the country. You were never going to get rich as a bus driver but you could pay the mortgage or rent, afford a meal out now and then, and make sure your kids had what they needed to do well — hopefully to do better than you.
Competitive contracting has taken that away for nearly every bus driver in New Zealand. Over and again, modest terms and conditions that were slowly and carefully built up over time have been taken away with nothing more than a change of contractor, leaving us to start building from scratch again.
Like I said, the way it's set up there are only two ways to win a contract in this business. Cut wages or cut service. If the current new contract in Wellington goes ahead it is likely to mean two or three million dollars a year coming out of driver's incomes, out of their families' budgets, out of our local economy. I think that's crook.
All over New Zealand re-contracting has been used to reduce New Zealanders' wages. And it tends to happen in industries with a lot of people and where the jobs have traditionally provided decent middle income rates. A few hundred people in airport services here, a thousand more in the telco industry, another few hundred in security, countless numbers in primary industries, it goes on and on. And we wonder why Kiwis worry about their futures.
The good news is that for a few at the sharpest end of competitive tendering, where wages are the lowest, the Government before last put some protections in place. However, that's just for people who work as cleaners and catering workers, and it's not even all of them.
We need this to change. All Kiwis should have their jobs, terms, conditions and representation protected when the work they do is transferred to a new contractor. It doesn't mean that businesses won't be able to change how they do things, but it will mean that they will no longer be incentivised to go straight to taking money out of working people's households just to win contracts.
It might even get businesses thinking harder about how to really increase productivity. And it will mean that changes will be made the way they should be — in fair negotiation with the working people who are affected instead of the stroke of a pen on a new contract at the top of the corporate chain.
If we want to "boost the prosperity of all New Zealanders, not just those most in need" as this newspaper has stated, the first thing we need to do is make sure that middle New Zealand has the same protections as those in the most vulnerable jobs. Otherwise more and more Kiwis will find themselves "most in need" every year. That would be a tragedy for us as a people and as a nation.