A question of tone, Shelagh Duckham Cox

Employment Contracts: New Zealand Experiences
Raymond Harbridge (ed),
Victoria University Press, $29.95

I need to write two reviews of this book. The second should be placed on top of the first as a palimpset – to infuse, colour and modify it.

Forced to write sequentially, I start with the first. Raymond Harbridge gives us a timely discussion of the history and nature of one of the most important pieces of legislation to be passed in the current wave of social change. The Employment Contracts Act 1991 is either a piece of radical legislation in itself or it reflects a social transformation already well under way when the Act was passed. Which way you see it depends on your point of view, but no one seems to doubt that it basically affects the nature of working relationships in New Zealand. Work is no longer the same. The trouble is we really don’t know how it’s different. These essays give us facts and they give us interpretations of those facts by industrial relations academics, members of employers’ groups and leaders of the union movement.

There’s a surprising amount of agreement between these people about some basic trends. Negotiations within particular enterprises are replacing arrangements covering entire occupations. Individual contracts in the workplace are becoming more and more common but haven’t yet wholly taken the place of collective ones. The workforce divides increasingly into core workers, who have saleable skills and can find well-paid and relatively secure jobs, and peripheral workers who can’t. Those thrust to the edge are by no means only the unskilled. They include people whose skills are currently a glut on the market and all sorts of part-timers. Shops and restaurants employ a lot of them.

De-regulation, more or less of it, is in; the era of the rule of collective bargaining is out. Even Ken Douglas, President of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, doesn’t want to go back to the days of conciliation and arbitration. They allowed for guaranteed rights and protections for workers but belong to the past, to a paternalistic and stultifying state and a drowsing far-end-of-the-world national consciousness. Now we have to be alert to our need to earn a place in a very different environment – a global economy where workers and employers share production goals, and export mentality and a national vision.

Not all the fundamentals are seen from similar angles, of course. Members of the Auckland Employers’ Association and representatives of the trade union movement don’t agree about the role market forces should play in the new working world. The view from the Right is of untrammelled growth in the marketplace making its own moral argument; writers from the other side of the fence search for an alternative that protects people from what they see as the inhuman effect of market forces left to themselves.

This is where I need to start on the second of my reviews. It’s necessary mainly because the book itself is so well-edited, so balanced. In fact it’s the very care with which it’s been planned that makes the first review a distortion if it’s left to stand on its own. Because the contributors to the book are entering into a rational discussion within a framework of agreement, they seem to deliberately muffle themselves. Every voice is muted, whether it comes from the Left or the Right, from an academic or a lay specialist.

In the real world it’s not like that. In a tone implying such excesses are to be avoided, one of the contributors refers to the rhetoric and anecdotes that employers and workers summon up when they talk about the Act. But it’s the rhetoric and anecdote, the simple telling of the stories of what’s happening, that’s missing in this book. Every now and again someone says more research is needed or admits to not knowing what effect the Act is having on people’s lives. But there’s no chapter written by a worker who’s too frightened of being jobless to negotiate a contract that’s a considered and equal exchange. Nor is there anything written by a social worker, a priest or a psychiatrist involved with those whose lives have been altered by the Act. There’s no chapter written by a factory owner who says exactly how it allows him to cut costs, increase his profit, produce more, join the export market. Contributions like these would unbalance the book, of course, and take it into the realm of personal accounts. But without them, especially in the absence of any real appraisal of what’s happening from any other source, we lack information about a change we need very much to understand. The full title of the book is Employment Contracts: New Zealand Experiences but I am left at the end of it still needing to know what those experiences are.


Shelagh Duckham Cox is a Wellington writer and sociologist.



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