Jacinda Ardern reflects on 'awakening' teen work experience that entrenched her support for 'vulnerable workers'

Jacinda Ardern has opened up about how her experience of working for an employer who ripped up an incident log of staff injuries inspired her to support "vulnerable workers". 

The Prime Minister spoke on Tuesday at the Public Service Association (PSA)'s Biennial Congress in Wellington, where she was welcomed to the stage by president Janet Quigley, who described Ardern as "no stranger" to the union movement.

She said Ardern first joined a union as a teenager when she worked in a supermarket where she "experienced first-hand the realities of what working people go through when we stand up for ourselves". 

"New checkouts were brought in and the way they were set up caused injuries to some of her co-workers. Jacinda made sure her colleagues reported all of the injuries into an incident log. But when she did that, her boss came down and ripped the pages out of the log in front her," Quigley said. 

"Jacinda says that the experience was quite scary back in those days but it taught her a lesson that we need to stand up for our rights."

Ardern touched on the experience in the lead-up to the 2017 election speaking to E tū, a union representing more than 50,000 workers of which Ardern is a member.

"It was a real lesson for me about the need to stand up, even if it was a scary experience." 

Ardern said Quigley had done "some excellent research" on her teen years and what inspired her to join a union. The 40-year-old Labour Party leader grew up in the Waikato town of Morrinsville. 

PSA president Janet Quigley.
PSA president Janet Quigley. Photo credit: Newshub

"I haven't talked about that for quite some time, but your description of it just brought it all back," Ardern said after Quigley's introduction. 

"That is exactly what happened, and I remember it so well, not least because I was a teenager when that happened and it was the 1990s and many of you will have stories from that time, but it was really an awakening for me.

"It only further entrenched my view around the incredible work that our union movement does in the good times and in the hard times, supporting our most vulnerable workers. So, thank you for reminding me of why I do what I do."

Quigley said the PSA is excited about seeing some of Labour's policies come to fruition, such as fair pay agreements, which incoming Workplace Relations Minister Michael Wood says Labour is committed to after it was held up by NZ First. 

"These are urgently needed policies that we know are dear to the heart of our Prime Minister and we look forward to being part of the conversation about how they can be made a reality," Quigley said. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addressing PSA's Biennial Congress.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addressing PSA's Biennial Congress. Photo credit: Newshub

Fair pay agreements are a set of terms and conditions that employers in a particular sector must abide by with the aim of raising standards. The fair pay agreements would cover all workers in the sector, regardless of whether the workers are union members or not. 

National MP Scott Simpson is concerned that trade unions would hold too much sway over the Government, to the detriment of business, and hopes Labour will get cold feet. 

"They said it would be a priority three years ago. It was an area they didn't deliver on and they didn't deliver on it for good reason," he told RNZ

ACT's workplace relations and safety spokesperson Chris Baillie says fair pay agreements will "take industrial relations back to the 1970s". 

But Wood recently told Newshub Labour "wants all workers to get a fair share of their income for the work that they do" and his priority is to "make sure that we don't exacerbate inequalities in our economy".