In a major union victory against precarious work, on 10 March 2016 the New Zealand parliament unanimously passed a law banning zero-hour contracts.
This ends one of the ugliest forms of workers’ exploitation. Under the guise of flexibility, zero hours contracts are used to control workers, as managers have complete discretion over who gets shifts.
The new law takes effect on 1 April 2016, and stipulates that employers must guarantee a minimum number of hours per week, and that workers can refuse extra hours without repercussions.
The victory is the culmination of more than a decade of struggle by unions in New Zealand. IndustriALL affiliates where part of the campaign lead by Unite Union, which organizes fast food, hospitality and retail workers, and other sectors characterized by precarious contracts, including call centre workers, security guards and cleaners.
Unite has fought for collective agreements since 2003, and has conducted high profile campaigns against McDonald’s, KFC and other major employers. In 2005, through the Supersize My Pay campaign, the union won its first collective agreements with fast food multinationals, in a campaign to boost the minimum wage, end youth rates and guarantee secure hours.
Mike Treen, Unite’s national director explains, “We were successful on the first two counts but every attempt to get secure hours was thwarted by the companies. We got promises to offer hours to existing staff before new staff were hired written into our agreements, but they were virtually unenforceable in such high turnover industries.”
The union launched a campaign against zero hour contracts, attracting international solidarity and widespread support from the public. In 2014 and 2015, Unite joined unions around the world for Fast Food Global, a day of action for fast food workers. The issue won more attention and sympathy when it was covered by the TV series Campbell Live Show, and even right-wing journalists started to publicly oppose zero hours.
In 2015, Unite won collective bargaining agreements with McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King and Pizza Hut, ending zero hour contracts and guaranteeing hours at these workplaces. The 2016 legislation extends this victory to all workers.
Treen said “This represents a fundamental shift in the employment relationship of the most vulnerable workers in the country.”
Parallel to the Unite campaign, IndustriALL affiliate FIRST Union has been running a Secure Our Hours Campaign and lobbied hard for the changes in legislation.
"We have been locked in battle for nine months with the Australian DIY retail chain Bunnings, who are hell bent in trying to turn their fixed-hours workforce into flexi-hour workers," said FIRST Union general secretary Robert Reid.
"This new law will give us more ammunition for this and similar struggles," he said.
This is a significant victory against precarious work, as it comes from a sector that is notoriously difficult to organize. Zero hour contracts remain a serious problem in many countries.
According to The Guardian, between 800,000 and 1.5 million workers in the UK are employed on zero hour contracts. Similar contracts exist in many other countries.