BY JAMES ROBB
AUCKLAND, New Zealand - Some members of the meat workers' unions in this city have been working very long hours recently. At Astleys tannery, some work "teams" put in 76- hour weeks in March. This overtime was not compulsory; it is sought by most workers. One individual worked one day from 6 a.m. to 3 a.m., then came back in to start again after just three hours break. The clause in the contract that provides for a minimum of nine hours' rest between shifts is frequently waived.
Since the anti-union Employment Contracts Act was passed in 1990, a major goal of the employers' offensive against working people in New Zealand has been the removal of premium rates of pay for overtime. In many workplaces, including union-organized ones, they have been successful. But Astleys workers pushed back an attempt by the company to get rid of overtime rates, in a strike in early 1993. Time- and-a-half or double time is still paid for all hours in excess of 40 per week. Despite this, the employers prefer to have workers put in long hours rather than hire additional people. "We want you guys to have the first chance to earn a bit extra," the foremen say.
In fact, it is in the company's interest - not the workers' - to organize production this way.
Astleys, a tannery employing about 200 production staff, hired 70 new workers in early 1993 in response to booming sales. But when orders slumped a few months later, 20 of these workers were laid off, costing the company $2,000 each in redundancy (severance) payments.
No increase in real wage
On the other hand, workers' overtime hours can be cut at no cost to the employer if sales slump. Moreover, lengthening the workweek reduces the pressure on the company to increase wages in a period of economic upturn. Despite three years of economic growth, there has been almost no increase in real wages in New Zealand. Unemployment has remained high throughout the upturn. The uncertainty and fragility of the current economic situation reinforces the bosses' desire to use overtime instead of hiring whenever they can get away with it.
Uncertainty about what the future holds also puts workers under pressure to agree to longer hours. One worker expressed amazement that anyone should turn down voluntary overtime. "You need to do all the overtime you can get now, because in a few months they may not be offering any more," he said.
In March, a group of Astleys workers led a spontaneous walkout when the boss lowered their overtime hours without consulting them. Cuts to overtime hours have been an issue in several recent strikes in New Zealand. Waterside workers recently struck the Port of Auckland to protest the hiring of casual workers, which would have reduced their overtime hours.
In April, Astleys hired additional workers to meet a rise in production, and at the same time imposed a compulsory 50- hour workweek in most of the plant.
A long working week is also compulsory at the Auckland Abattoirs packinghouse. A September 1993 contract contained major concessions, including ending premium overtime pay and allowing the boss to use more casual workers. This removed an important economic restraint on the company to keep the normal working day down to eight hours. All new hiring since that time has been of casual workers, on whom the pressure to do all the hours demanded is higher.
The typical workweek at the height of the beef season is now about 12 hours Monday to Friday, with an additional six or eight hours on Saturday.
The long working day is a frequent topic of conversation here. "Too damned long if you ask me," one older beef butcher told me. "The old body can only take so much. But no one gives a damn about the worker these days. The only thing that matters is the dollar."
It's not only the older workers who feel the pressure. "I'll be an old man by the time I'm forty at this rate," a worker in his twenties told me. Others point to examples of accidents and muscular injuries caused by overwork. Absenteeism is high, as workers individually try to cope with the long hours by taking a day off now and then.
"They treat us like machines that they can switch on and off whenever they like," said another. "They forget we are human beings. I've got a family, children that I like to see now and then before they're asleep. It all becomes impossible with these hours."
Along with removing the premium pay rates, the company is imposing more forced overtime. The contract obliges workers to work "reasonable hours of overtime." In response to an inquiry from the union about what was considered "reasonable," the company stated that after completeing 50 hours in any week, workers could refuse further work. However, on at least one occasion this has been ignored. Recently several workers who had each put in more than 60 hours by Friday were threatened with disciplinary action if they refused Saturday work.
"It must be illegal what they are doing," one worker insisted. "There are laws which say they can't force us to work every hour of the day. We still have human rights."
"There are no laws like that any more. That's what went out the window when the Employment Contracts Act came in," replied his co-worker. "We need more union meetings, so we can discuss what we're going to do about it. This is a health and safety issue."
The only limit to the working week is what the working class imposes. Where there are laws that limit the workweek, they exist because the labor movement fought for them in the past, and they provide little protection unless the unions fight to defend them. Workers are paying a heavy price in overwork and injuries for the default of the union officialdom on this question in recent years.
Protect health and safet
Resistance to the employers' constant efforts to lengthen the working day is vital to protect our health and safety. Besides resisting compulsory overtime clauses in employment contracts, we need to build a union-led political movement to shorten the working week by law.
As long as unemployment remains high, employers will try to use it to turn worker against worker, "casual" against "permanent," unemployed against employed, sapping union strength.
A fight to shorten the workweek can help combat the crippling effects of unemployment on working-class solidarity by uniting employed and unemployed in a common fight to force the bosses to create more jobs.
James Robb is a member of the Meat Workers Union of
Aotearoa, at the Auckland Abattoirs.
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