Transcript: Helen Kelly

  • 10/10/2015
Helen Kelly
Helen Kelly

Lisa Owen: Well, my next guest is a woman who isn't scared of a fight — Council of Trade Unions boss Helen Kelly has taken on everyone from Sir Peter Jackson to the former CEO of Pike River. Diagnosed with lung cancer in February, the first female president of the CTU is standing down next week. But in typical style, still has plenty of plans up her sleeve. Helen Kelly is with me in the studio. Good morning.

Helen Kelly: Good morning.

You heard Tim Groser there saying, 'TPP is great. We needed to be in on this deal. We get better access for our exports. Pharmac is protected.' What's the problem?

Well, actually, if you listen to what he really said — he said things like, 'If we're prepared to defend ourselves,' and he means in a court when we do things like, perhaps, restrict sugar in soft drinks. We don't know how any sort of labour restrictions or labour standards will be enforced. There was a lot of stuff in that interview that actually confirms our fear that this is not a good deal for New Zealand, restricts our sovereignty, opens us up to foreign investors suing us for sovereign decisions, and the fact that we're debating this, and you and I haven't seen the text and he refuses to release the text, I think is an absolute affront to democracy.

So you don't feel any better about this deal?

No. All we know is what's been leaked and what's been released since, and there are some very serious things in there. There are things in there that restrict governments from favouring New Zealand companies and procurement; that restrict governments from restricting the sale of New Zealand land and of New Zealand companies. They've lifted the threshold to buy New Zealand companies from 100 million to 200 million in terms of needing IO approval. These things are very serious issues, and they bind future governments, and I didn't hear anything much in that interview that would say, 'Yay. We're on the way to prosperity and growth,' really.

All right. Well, let's move on. You are stepping down after eight years, I think it is as president, what is your proudest achievement in that role?

Well, I mean, I don't achieve anything on my own. That's the first thing. We're a team and we're a movement, but I'm very, very proud of the work we've done on health and safety and, in particular, the work we've done with our forestry families. We've been sensational. The accident rate in forestry has reduced by 60 percent, serious harm accident rate, in little over a year. The death rate has dramatically fallen, and we've got this amazing crew of families who are strongly bonded and fighting for better health and safety for New Zealand workers. That would be one my highlights, but lots of other things as well.

Well, the thing is, only... I think it's roughly one in five workers are signed up to a union now, aren't they, and you've said in the past that's because the government and government policy has attacked and undermined the unions, but you've also said that the union needs to take some responsibility as well. In what way?

Well, there's two prongs. One is we're constantly under attack, and we saw that there with even the Minister suggesting that labour standards might not be enforced — the most basic labour standards. But there's been a design to stop people joining unions to make it more difficult. So forestry workers, for example, can't really easily access and join a union. But from a union's perspective, it's been my platform, and we've started to see some very exciting changes this week, that the union movement is still developed and framed around some very traditional industries without thinking about new industries and what might be needed to make it easier for those workers to access us. So if you want to join a union and you're a forestry worker, you still have to fill in a form, send it to your boss, hope your fees get deducted, hope you don't get sacked. You know, it's become a real risk rather than a right to join a union. If you've got three jobs, you might have to join three unions. And so it's my view that we have to change, and we saw the launch of a brilliant new union this week, which is an amalgamation of two big private-sector unions.

I'm wondering, though, whether the younger generations of workers coming through, whether they see relevance in some other principles of the union — collective bargaining. Maybe that doesn't fit with the philosophy of 'me first'. 'What's in this for me?'

Well, the research shows that if a young person is in a workplace where there's a union, they're quicker to join than an older person, and, actually, that if you're a young worker in this country, the plight of being in a non-unionised workplace with the sorts of zero hours, you know, having your pay deducted if someone else doesn't pay for the petrol — all those sorts of things, insecure work, has made working life for young people very, very difficult. And they are more and more in industries where there are not traditional unions. So, actually, I don't think it's a choice of those young people not to join a union. I just think it's not available to them.

But the thing is, you're interacting with people on social media, trying to reach out to different groups, how do you get them to sign on, because you're not getting them at the moment? You've got one in five workers.

Well, I guess the new model that we're looking at is this idea of having a low threshold for joining. So if you have a look at modern organisations like Greenpeace or like Amnesty, they have multiple places where people can associate with them and join. You don't have to do the whole kit and caboodle — filling in the form, being the delegate, being organised. You can actually associate. And that's what we're seeing with forestry workers. They're associating with us through Facebook, through Twitter, directly by phone, and in those different ways, without the formal approach of being able to formally join in that way. So we're looking at how— We represent all working people in New Zealand and we get lots and lots of indications that they appreciate us advocating for higher wages, for better working conditions, for safe work, but they're just not able to associate in the traditional way, and it's our challenge...

But would that mean signing up and not paying a fee?

It might mean contributing in a myriad of ways. So, the forestry workers—


Financially. The forestry workers have contributed a lot of money for our various campaigns as we've run them out, actually. Possibly more than they would have paid in union fees by the time they've funded memorial occasions. They've come to Wellington for weeks on end campaigning around the health and safety bill, as you would have seen in the media. So, actually, what we're saying is it's not always just a single traditional way of paying a union fee. We do need finances. We are, you know, short of resources, and resources are important, but that doesn't mean that we should be exclusive rather than inclusive.

OK. Well, you have kept up a blistering work schedule this year and while you're being treated for terminal cancer, now you're looking at the issue of pay equity, aren't you? What are your plans there?

OK, so people will know that unions won a spectacular victory in the Employment Court which says that women and female-dominated occupations – rest homes – are able to look externally at male-dominated occupations and make a claim for an increased pay based on their skills, experience, workload and win a court-ordered rate for rest homes. That means women in rest homes will get equal pay. That obviously then says, well, what about all the other female-dominated occupations like clerical support, which are highly-skilled women running offices, get paid less money cos it's female-dominated occupations like home support – I mean, a whole range of special-education teachers, those groups. And so I'm interested in looking at that court case – retail workers – and saying, 'What are the claims can we make under this developing law?'

So specifically are you looking at the clerical workers and taking a case for them?

Yeah, I would like to ask to lodge a case for clerical workers across the economy. In every office, there will be somebody doing high-level data management effectively – you know, all the different types of things that clerical workers do throughout the health service, through the school, education sector. All of these women are being paid rates that reflect the fact that these occupations are dominated by women, and I think they'd have a decent equal-pay claim, and there would be thousands and thousands of women who would identify with that.

I want to talk now about your health. Tell me —you've gone public with this – have you noticed that people treat you differently once they know that you are ill?

No, people have been very kind, and I come home and my garden's been done by the pixies – I don't know. There's been all these amazing, beautiful outpourings of support, which have been really nice, but no, I haven't noticed people treat me differently. People are surprised that I still look so well, I think, but, yeah, people want to talk about it, I guess. There's been more conversations about my health than ever before, but, no, people don't treat me differently.

But you've sort of engaged in some black humour, and even when you said you were coming on this show, someone put out a tweet that said 'walking dead', and you favourite that tweet.

Yeah, well, there is a bit of black humour, you know? I mean, I got a life membership of this new union the other day, and I was thinking, 'The cheapskates – life membership,' you know? They're saving their money. Yeah, you have to have a bit of black humour, because otherwise you could disappear and, um, not live your life while you're living. I mean, I feel like I'm living my life at the moment, not dying, so that's what I'm trying to do.

You've had chemotherapy, and I think you've had some new immunotherapy as well, so how is all of that going for you?

It's not going great. The immunotherapy's a brand-new drug. It's just being trialled, really, and they're just trying to work out—they don't know how it works or why it works. And I have tried it, and I-- Well, it's hard to tell, but the cancer's progressing, which is a sign that maybe it's not working as they hoped. So, yeah, I mean, that's my lot, really.

But what about alternative treatments? Are you looking at that?

No. The only alternative stuff I'm doing is basically eating healthily and taking some various herbs and spices, but, you know, I would like to try some more alternative therapies that are coming on the market, like cannabis oil. I'm really brassed off that those sorts of remedies are not available. Cannabis oil is now—the National Geographic is suggesting that it's got some real curative qualities, which I'm not sure about, but it's definitely got some healthy pain-relief qualities which I'd really like to access. I'm actually going to write to Peter Dunne, who's got permission to give me cannabis oil, and I'm going to ask him to do that. I've known Peter Dunne sine I was a kid, basically. When I was in Karori, at the teachers' college, he was the MP there. I've worked with him. He knows that I'm not a drug addict —not that that should matter – but it's for health reasons. I've exhausted all of the normal medicines. I could get morphine as much as I like, which is a horrible drug. And I would like access to cannabis oil – both because I'm interested in its curative effect; actually I think there's something in that – but particularly because it is a mild pain relief that really works on aches and pains and bones.

How do you know it works?

Well, just from the research that's been developed and what you read about it. It's a non-toxic drug. In America they're manufacturing it to need. So if it's pain relief you need, they can manufacture it. If it's a kid that's got seizures, they can manufacture it. Here you're forced to go on the black market; you're forced to deal in that way. You don't know what you're getting.

Have you been forced to do that? Have you given it a go yet?

Yes, I have given it a go, and I don't like doing that, and what I would like is to be able to access it legally.

So you've taken some already?

Yeah, I've inhaled.

But now you want that rubber-stamped.

Yeah, and I'm going to write to Peter Dunne, and he's said he can give medical exemptions, and it's time this country woke up and realised that, actually, while we're running short of money on drugs, and there are very, very important drugs that I can't get on the public health system that would help me in terms of giving me a better quality of life, they're restricting other drugs that people can take in an organised way and get some benefit from.

Because the thing is – treatments like this, end-of-life care – they're big personal issues, but they're also big political issues, aren't they? Where do you stand in terms of terminally-ill people? Should they have the right to seek medical assistance to end their lives?

Yes, I think in the right circumstances they should be able to, and those include their ability to consent, the medical prognosis and whether their symptoms can be managed so they can have a quality of life that most people would expect.

Some people might find that interesting, though, because you've spent such a large chunk of your life fighting for vulnerable people, and a lot of the argument against legalising euthanasia is that vulnerable people need protection. So how do you--?

Well, you're not more vulnerable than when you're dying of a terrible illness and you're in pain, are you? And so 'vulnerable people need protection' could mean that you support them to make choices about whether they want to keep on living. So, you know, this is a little fishing village, this country. People don't like new ideas and are challenged by people who put their hand up and say something completely out of the normal space, and they're often shut down. But we can't even have a decent debate in this country on the issues of things like use of cannabis oil for medicinal purposes, euthanasia. There's this hysterical need to shut down those debates and not have them properly, and people are even shocked, I think, that I'm so open about speaking about my illness and what's going to happen to me. It's time we started talking to each other about the issues in this country and supporting people who have got alternative points of view.

Sounds like you're taking on another big battle. Thanks for joining us this morning.

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