Low paid aged care workers and nurses were out on strike again on 19th March. The action was at 22 out of Oceania’s 57 homes, which are run on public money for private profit. They have our full support. Their stand is an example to other workers, and shows that workers in all industries can stand up and fight back.
Oceania pay their care givers an appalling basic rate of just $13.61, a smidgen above the minimum wage that will be $13.50 from April. Qualified nurses are paid more of course, but less than in the public sector. They only get $8.33 on top of basic when they work a weekend shift. Oceania’s latest offer is a miserly 1.72% increase, but only from February and not backdated to last June when the last collective agreement expired. But the offer is worse than even this because Oceania want to cut overtime rates.
As paymasters the government are partners in this crime. Oceania got a 2.6% increase in their public funding last June but refuse to pass it on to staff pay. In a labour-intensive service industry John Key is effectively capping pay to below inflation levels.
What should be done? For starters the union movement should raise a storm of protest and not leave the Oceania unions SWFU and NZNO to battle on alone. The SWFU and NZNO strikes are an inspiration, and have drawn others into the union and into struggle. Two SFWU delegates from Oceana spoke to a Unions Wellington meeting last Friday and talked of the determination of union members on the picket lines. But the care givers left to fight by themselves have little industrial power, and illegal solidarity strike action by workers in sectors with greater power is unrealistic. However, the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) and all unions could back the strikers’ public protests to the hilt by calling on members to join in. We marched with the watersiders, we can do the same in town after town with the Oceania workers and the elderly folks’ families.
It is not only the greedy Oceania owners who need to be exposed. The politicians are responsible for the elderly care service being run for profit. Quite simply Oceania and the other private outfits should be nationalised without compensation. The public already pay for the care for the elderly. Why should profit be skimmed off at the expense of poverty pay and minimal standards? Those false friends of workers, the Labour Party, could make nationalisation a manifesto policy and pledge to make elderly care the quality public service it should be. Keeping the status quo means condemning women care workers to poverty pay indefinitely, because that is what privately contracted publicly funded services are designed to do. Only as a public service could women care workers ever get the recognition they deserve for a demanding job that, let’s face it, few men have the skills to do. Unless Labour, and the Greens, take up the call for nationalisation their support for the care workers is nothing but hogwash.
There is another false friend abroad, and that is the call for New Zealand ownership. Bryan Gould wrote an otherwise excellent piece on the dispute, but lamented that Oceania was Australian-owned (New Zealand Herald, 14 March 2012).
“Like most overseas owners, Oceania have little knowledge of and even less interest in the welfare of their New Zealand workers - to say nothing of New Zealand customers and taxpayers.”
“The real goal of privatised companies is profit, not service. We cannot prevent privatised firms - despite the government's obfuscation on this issue - from falling into foreign hands. Enterprises owned overseas have little concern for the interests of their workforce. New Zealand workers are increasingly at the mercy of hard-nosed employers.”
Quite frankly this all-New Zealanders-together nationalism is nonsense. The for-profit elderly care service is a made in New Zealand construct. It operates under New Zealand made anti-union labour laws. There is no evidence at all that New Zealand employers are better to their workers than Australian; in fact it would be easy to make an argument to the contrary. But it is not a question what set of employers have better morals because all capitalists have the same immorality, to exploit and make the most profit possible. The New Zealand ruling class is as greedy as any and gets away with it more than most. The main enemy is at home. The real question Bryan Gould should be asking is how do we build a workers’ movement powerful enough to get rid of the profit system.
Pay the Oceania workers’ 3.5% claim today!
Nationalise the elderly care service and pay women a living wage tomorrow!
[Photo Credit: Service and Food Workers' Union website. Look out for details of how to support the strike action coming on Easter Thursday, 5th April]