Give workers a break from shoddy practices

A couple of weeks back a union member called me in some distress. She had begun work at 4.30 in the morning but was not given a break until 11.45. She was tired and angry.She works in the departure lounge at Auckland International Airport serving food and drinks. It’s hard enough being on your feet all day, trying to engage in a friendly fashion with customers without the added burden of continuous work for many hours.

In the middle of last week I had another call from the same worksite. Another member was in trouble for taking an unauthorised break.

First, she had become embarrassed because a new co-worker, on her first day at work, had not received a break for six hours. Failing to find a supervisor she told the new worker to just take her break. Later, when she similarly took her own break (after seven hours work), she was confronted by an angry supervisor who dressed her down in front of other staff for taking her break when she hadn’t been released to do so.

These are just the latest in a long history of problems for staff taking breaks at this site. The union has raised this issue with management so often it’s become a pointless exercise. I have said to them so many times that these practices are unacceptable and all workers deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. It’s a message which falls on deaf ears. I’m sick of hearing myself saying it.

Last April the union pointed out to the company it was breaching its own contract by giving only 10 minutes of paid breaks during an eight-hour shift instead of 20 minutes. They reluctantly relented and from the following day began giving 20 minutes of paid breaks.

It didn’t last long, however. They have now changed the rosters so that most workers do just a seven-hour shift to avoid the company having to give the extra break.

If this company’s actions sound childishly pathetic to you then you are in good company. Would any reader put up with this nonsense at their workplace?

The company is short-staffed but rather than pay decent wages to attract more staff the workers exist on or close to the minimum wage with Dickensian-type work conditions. Needless to say, staff turnover is very high but there is a supply of new staff, partly courtesy of Work and Income New Zealand who refer women re-entering the workforce to this worksite. The workers are mainly women and mainly Maori, Pacific or from recently migrated ethnic minorities.

Many readers will have passed through the departure lounge and will have seen these workers and have probably even been served a drink or a snack by them. They are a wonderful bunch of people.

Maintaining a strong union presence at a site like this is very difficult where workers change on a regular basis and are on rostered shifts over seven days of the week and 20 hours a day. However, union membership is rising and hopefully these appalling practices can be put to an end.

Last week, it was refreshing to see an announcement from Labour Minister Trevor Mallard and fellow Cabinet minister Maryan Street saying the Government is proposing to amend the Employment Relations Act to guarantee minimum meal and refreshment breaks along with breastfeeding opportunities for working mothers.

The real question is, why has it taken so long for such basic conditions as these to enter the law.

Business New Zealand chief executive Phil O’Reilly says employers are in favour of adequate meal and rest breaks but he said he has not seen any evidence that requires a new law. He says that in thousands of workplaces across the country employers and employees make sensible arrangements without having written rules. This is true, but there are problems in workplaces up and down the country. And it’s not just a few rogue employers who are the problem. The evidence is there for anyone who cares to look.

For a start, I suggest Phil O’Reilly visit Auckland airport and talk to these workers. As with businesses generally, the rights of workers come a distant second to profit for shareholders.

And who are the employers at the airport who run the oppressive operation I’ve described earlier? The workers are employed jointly by Auckland International Airport Limited (AIAL) and Host Marriot Services Corporation (HMSC).

HMSC is an international company running similar ventures around the world and is well-known for providing poor working conditions and keeping unions out of their businesses.

AIAL on the other hand is still locally owned. Among the shareholders are a who’s who of New Zealand business people as well as the Auckland and Manukau city councils.

The shareholders won’t do it so a law change is needed to give workers like these a break.