'We've just been left behind' - Union argues need for fair pay agreements in NZ

The Council of Trade Unions is set to release a report this morning calling for the Government to honour a pre-election promise to introduce fair pay agreements.

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Council of Trade Unions President Richard Wagstaff spoke about the need for fair pay in NZ. Source: Breakfast

Lead by former Prime Minister Jim Bolger, a working group was formed last June with the intention of developing a plan to introcuce such agreements. A report was issued in December with what the Government described at the time as "detailed and valuable recommendations".

However, it's now been seven months on and no actions have been taken.

Appearing on TVNZ1's Breakfast this morning, CTU President Richard Wagstaff explained why a fair pay agreement is so vital in today's working economy.

"[It] is an agreement between workers and employers right across an industry," Mr Wagstaff said.

"At the moment, we really don't have that at all - we just have individual bargaining or collective bargaining, enterprise by enterprise.

"This is about setting a standard across an industry for the basics. For your basic pay rates, for maybe training for a redundancy, for holidays and so on."

Minister Iain Lees-Galloway has previously spoken of a so-called "race to the bottom" among employers, aiming to minimise costs by paying employees as little as possible. It's something Mr Wagstaff says is holding many industries back.

"We see it every day," he said. "We've seen it in quite spectacular fashion in places like the Wellington bus industry - where the existing provider has a collective agreement and all of the other people tendering for the service have no bottom except for the minimum wage.

"They tend to - under existing providers - win the contract, drag the wages down and that just keeps happening. We just keep pulling wages down to the bottom through there being no industry standards.

"That's what we're looking for here with fair pay agreements - an industry standard under which nobody can fall."

While some employers do look to pay their workers a fair rate, the work of "cowboys" is lowering the standards across various industries, he said. 

"We know that there's good employers out there who want to raise the game, raise the bar, but they can't very easily because they keep being undercut by the cowboys out there who keep dragging wages down."

Although the minimum wage has increased under the current Government, it's too simple of a metric to measure where New Zealand is at in terms of fair pay among industries, Mr Wagstaff argued.

"It's a blunt instrument," he siad. "That's one wage for the entire economy, for every industry. It only covers your basic wage package.

"What we want is a far more industry-based approach - where we can talk not just about wages, but about training, about productivity, about leave, about all kinds of things, rather than just that one blunt instrument - the minimum wage."

New Zealand has "a real problem" with wage disparity," he said. 

"We've got to do something about it," he said. "This is a decisive step that most countries take. We've just been left behind.

"There needs to be a decent wage system in New Zealand. We don't have one. We have a system that drags things down for too many people.

"Here's a way of rectifying that."

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The Prime Minister responded to concerns ahead of today's report release. Source: Breakfast

Also appearing on Breakfast today, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern agreed with what Mr Wagstaff said. Her 2017 election campaign revolved around lifting underprivileged New Zealanders out of poverty.

However, the Prime Minister was forced to defend a perceived delay in action ahead of today's report release.

"We are working on that implementation," Ms Ardern told Breakfast.

"One thing I have learned in Government, everything takes longer than you think and would hope.

"But of course, once we do this, we do want to make sure we get it right. I'm not stepping away from what we've committed to. we're doing the work, it's just taking a bit of time."

She declined, however, to give a precise date for the change. 

"As someone who operates a coalition Government, I'm always cautious about putting down exact dates," she said. 

"We do everything by consensus. I do want to make sure that I don't put undue pressure on by putting on these timelines. But the minister is pretty close, I think, to getting that work done.

"It won't be too far away now."