12 June, 2012
Address to the ILC Plenary - 101st International Labour Conference
Tena koutou, Tena koutou katoa (Greetings to you all).
Mr President, fellow delegates. I’m very pleased to be able to address this session, to acknowledge the contribution Director General Juan Somavia has made to the ILO, and to congratulate and welcome our new Director-General, Guy Ryder, who we have elected to lead this organisation over the years to come.
This Conference comes at an important time. The topics of labour standards, youth employment, and social protection that we are discussing highlight the challenges of achieving Decent Work in the current economic climate.
Employment is at the heart of Decent Work. Workers have a critical interest in jobs, but so too do the entrepreneurs and business people who often risk all they have to establish the enterprises that create those jobs.
If they are to be successful in this, particularly in times of economic uncertainty, we need to provide them with the confidence and ability to create the growth that supports our systems of social and labour protection.
In New Zealand, not only have we felt the impacts of the 2008 recession and the global financial crisis, the region of Canterbury – which I call home - and our second largest city Christchurch were badly damaged by earthquakes in 2010 and 2011.
In forging our economic recovery, we have sought to meet these challenges through making careful, measured adjustments to our employment relations system designed to give businesses the confidence to grow and take on staff, whilst ensuring the rights of employees are protected.
One example of this has been the introduction of 90-day trial periods for the new employees of small businesses. This measure alone is credited with creating some 13,000 new jobs. It has since been extended it to all employers.
In addition, we have steadily increased the adult Minimum Wage to its current level of NZ$13.50 per hour. According to the latest data, New Zealand’s minimum wage, in comparison to our average wage, is the highest in the OECD.
We are also introducing a Starting Out Wage designed to give some of our youngest and most inexperienced workers valuable work experience and a much-needed foot in the door. Like the 90-day trial periods, this will help employers give those who they might not otherwise employ a chance at work. The Starting Out Wage will be simple to understand and administer, and will apply for the first six months of work with a new employer.
We have also made a number of improvements to increase choice, flexibility and the effectiveness of the collective bargaining process. These include removing barriers to costly and protracted negotiations where agreement is clearly never going to be reached, whilst retaining the obligation for parties to bargain in good faith.
At the same time, requirements around employment agreements have been strengthened and Labour Inspectors now have more tools to ensure that employees get their entitlements and there is a level playing field for employers. Other changes have been made to streamline and improve our employment dispute resolution systems.
Decent Work also hinges on safe workplaces – which is why we are investing an additional $NZ37m over the next four years into improving the culture of workplace health and safety in New Zealand.
Finally, I have also taken strong and decisive action over the issue of poor working practices and conditions on foreign charter vessels fishing in our waters. A Ministerial Inquiry found severe problems in the treatment of the crew of these vessels. We have therefore decided that, in future, all such vessels must be reflagged with New Zealand flags so that they will be required to meet the full range of New Zealand employment relations and workplace health and safety law.
All these initiatives have been done in a difficult and challenging economic environment.
But we have not made change for change’s sake.
Rather, we have looked to achieve a better balance between the interests of employers, in creating and maintaining jobs, and those of employees in having fairness and the protection of their rights at work.
Ultimately, realising Decent Work depends on there being jobs in the first place, and putting in place pragmatic and flexible solutions that let employers, employees and businesses focus on what they do best.
We are confident that the ILO will take a similarly realistic and pragmatic approach in promoting measures that support business growth and job creation and the environment for Decent Work to flourish.
Kia ora. E noho rā (Thank you. Goodbye.)