Politicians grill Business NZ's Kirk Hope on 'misinformation campaign'

Business NZ CEO Kirk Hope faced off against politicians in a heated debate over the Fair Pay Agreements Bill.

The Education and Workforce Select Committee was hearing evidence from a range of submitters on the proposed legislation, which would provide a framework for collective bargaining for fair pay agreements across entire industries or occupations, rather than just between unions and particular employers. 

Hope, who isn't in favour of across-the-board fair pay agreements and instead wants sector-specific standards, was one of Wednesday's submitters.

One line of questioning to him from Labour MP Camilla Belich was about Business NZ's so-called "misinformation campaign".

In May, the company's Your Work, Your Way website said New Zealand had made it onto a "naughty list" at the United Nations International Labour Organisation (ILO) of the 40 "worst-case breaches" of international labour treaties. 

But it was actually a list of alleged breaches that may or not be heard by a committee later this year. New Zealand was only on the list because Business NZ had successfully petitioned the ILO to consider whether the proposed Fair Pay Agreements Bill was in breach of international law.

Also noted by Business NZ was how New Zealand was next to Nigeria on the list - the list of countries was in alphabetical order. 

Business NZ gave the list the title "'Worst cases' breaches of international labour treaties", whereas the ILO had initially called it "Preliminary list of cases as submitted by the social partners Committee on the Application of Standards".

Business NZ admitted to changing the list name but said it wasn't a mischaracterisation to say New Zealand was in breach of labour law.

In her questioning, Belich noted how Business NZ's follow-up press release two weeks later in late May used "much more restrained language", and asked if this was because Kirk "regretted the comments you made on May 16 and the approach Business NZ had taken".

Kirk said this wasn't the case.

"In the interim, the Government was also on a shorter list. So it started on a list of 40 [countries] and then it went down to a list of 22, so the case was going to be considered at the Committee on the Application of Standards," he said.

"The response of the committee was what we wanted to hear. That is that the Government needs to consider the views of social partners, including Business NZ, to ensure that it meets the terms of Convention 98. For us, that's a satisfactory result in terms of the way the Government needs to think about this particular piece of legislation."

Convention 98 concerns the right to organise and collective bargaining, and said "workers' and employers' organisations shall enjoy adequate protection against any acts of interference by each other or each other's agents".

Belich then asked Kirk a follow-up question on how Business NZ will work with the Government to ensure compliance with ILO Convention 98.

"We think the answer is not fair pay agreements. We think the answer is those sector-specific standards that identify and the mechanisms that identify the vulnerable sectors and addressing those things," he said.

"Because, as I've outlined in my previous speech, the challenge with fair pay agreements is the fact of universality and the fact of compulsion.

"If those two components continue and remain, then fair pay agreements are unlikely to be consistent with Convention 98. But we're happy to keep conversing with the Government about how to meet those obligations."

The Committee on the Application of Standards met in Geneva on June 8 at the ILO's annual conference to discuss Business NZ's complaint. 

It urged the Government, in consultation with social partners, to continue examining the proposed fair pay legislation and to ensure it complies with Convention 98

Business NZ released a statement on June 15 about the finding of ILO looking into its complaint. It said the ILO's conclusion "urged the Government 'to consider the impact of the proposed legislation and to ensure compliance with the Convention'".

"This means the proposed Fair Pay Agreements Bill in its current form is not compliant with ILO Convention 98 and requires amendment to achieve compliance," Business NZ said.

"Should the Fair Pay Agreements Bill be passed into law in its current form, the ensuing Act of Parliament would be seen as non-compliant with Convention 98, making the New Zealand Government vulnerable to further complaints to the ILO."

Belich asked Kirk where specifically the ILO stated that the Fair Pay Agreements Bill required amendment.

"Well, it says the Government has to work with social partners to ensure compliance," he said.

Belich replied: "But it doesn't state that it requires amendment?"

"Sure," Kirk responded.

Retail NZ also appeared before the Education and Workforce Select Committee on Wednesday and said the Fair Pay Agreements Bill would have "significant impacts" on the retail sector and consumers.

"We will likely see prices increase, aggravating the cost of living crisis, as retailers as grapple with the implementation costs, impact of increased hourly rates and the return of costly penal rates," they said.

"On average, net retail margins are just under four percent in our sector. This means that for every $20 spent retailers receive just 80 cents profit, so it is impossible for retailers to not pass on price increases to consumers. This Bill will likely lead retailers to increase prices, look at reducing store hours, and drive automation to replace jobs."

Union E tū is one of the groups in favour of fair pay agreements and assistant national secretary Annie Newman said the agreements will help many workers.

"Fair pay agreements will allow some of our most vulnerable workers to have a real opportunity to improve pay and conditions that have been kept so low for so long. Of course, the ILO is going to see the merits in that," she said.

E tū said its members and supporters have made over 1000 written submissions on the Fair Pay Agreements Bill and said this new mechanism is needed.

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