The issues of low pay and poor conditions are very familiar to our many members working for contractors in our public hospitals. Until recently, procurement rules encouraged contractors to bid low to win contracts. This may change after the Government this year moved to broaden the criteria for selecting contractors.
But familiarity with the history of contractors in our public hospitals presents a big red flag. From the first encroachment of contractors in our hospitals during the 1940s, through the dark days of the Employment Contracts Act and the slow, steady fight since then to improve the lives of all hospital workers, the historical record shows contractors have actively resisted decent pay for their workers, using anti-worker laws to drive down wages and conditions. The paper below, by our former Assistant National Secretary John Ryall, spells this out in detail.
The Early Awards
Occupational awards (Arbitration Court-set minimum mandatory pay rates and employment conditions for occupations) were in place from the 1890s but they didn’t really take off in a big way until the 1930s with the election of the First Labour Government, which brought in compulsory unionism and encouraged the formation of new awards in places where they had not existed before.
The Hospital Domestic Workers Award, first negotiated in 1940, covered orderlies, food service workers, cleaners, sewing room workers and male nurses, who were employed in public hospitals. At that time, they were all employed by Hospital Boards, but in the 1940s the first of the contractors started creeping into public hospitals.
Both the Canterbury and Wellington Hospital Boards contracted out their cleaning to Crothalls, which set off a tug-of-war between the Canterbury and Wellington Hotel and Hospital Workers Unions and the Canterbury and Wellington Cleaners Unions as to who covered these workers and under which Award (Hospital Domestic Workers Award or Cleaners Award).
Luckily for the cleaners, the Hotel and Hospital Workers won a case before the Arbitration Court in 1946 and at that point Crothalls and other contractors, who gained contracts in public hospitals, were covered by an award where pay rates and employment conditions were largely dictated by the Hospital Boards.
Pressure on Hospital Boards
In the early 1980s there was increased financial pressure placed by Government on the Hospital Boards and, as well as getting rid of continuing care beds to the private residential care sector, they also became more cost-conscious with changes of contract.
There were a number of disputes from 1981-85 (a big one in Wellington in 1981 and another in Auckland in 1983) regarding changes of contract and the cuts in hours of existing workers during these processes. Because the Award conditions were minimum industry conditions (including for any business, such as retail food stalls) that set up on a hospital premise, there was no room for a contractor to cut these conditions, but they could cut the hours of work of the cleaners.
At the time the Award had a provision that required the union to approve the appointment of any part-time worker through a permit system. This was used to control the cuts.
Later in the 1980s the part-time permit system was weakened (as most parts of the smaller unions were not using it) although this was replaced with a better provision to maintain hours of work if the contract changed and the workers were taken over.
The Dark Ages
The 1991 Employment Contracts Act broke up all previous arrangements and the national award broke up into site-based collective employment agreements.
In the periods 1992 (when the Hospital Domestic Award expired) and 1996, large parts of the public hospital system were contracted out as the Area Health Board system was broken up into competitive Crown Heath Enterprises, who were run by commercial, government-appointed directors and were expected to make a profit.
P&O Services (formerly Crothalls and now Spotless) were the dominant player and they took over all services at Counties-Manukau, Waitemata, Bay of Plenty, Mid-Central, Whanganui, Tairawhiti, Nelson-Marlborough and Southland. They already had cleaning services at Wellington, Hawkes Bay and Lakes.
The other contracting group that emerged was called Tempo and it started a cook-chill system and took over the food services at Taranaki, Lakes, Northland, Wellington, Canterbury and Wairarapa. Tempo, which was bought out by the US Delaware North Corporation also gained cleaning contracts in Wellington, Hawkes Bay and Auckland before it collapsed in 1995 leaving P&O Services (later bought by Spotless) to take over most of its contracts.
Because the Employment Contracts Act allowed employers to set up non-union collective agreements, P&O would do this and then employ all their new staff on these collective agreements despite a union collective agreement being in existence. If they wanted to cut conditions even further, they would set up a new non-union collective agreement while the others were still in existence and employ new staff on even lower conditions.
In Mid-Central Health, P&O Services had some existing workers on the old Award, some on the union collective agreement and others on collective agreements going from A to G, each with different cascading sets of employment conditions.
In the late 1990s there was a struggle at Mid-Central to get rid of all these collective agreements and force the company to offer all new workers the union collective agreement before other agreements.
The Victory Fund and the Fight for the DHB MECA
While a Labour-Alliance Government was elected in 1999 and the Employment Relations Act was introduced in 2000, it still took the unions time to adjust to public hospital organising and collective bargaining.
There were 45 separate collective agreements existing in the public hospitals and some of these local site-based agreements were so weak that their pay rates were very close to the minimum wage; the weekend, public holiday and night penal rates had been reduced to very low levels; and sick leave and other leave arrangements had been reduced in many parts of the country.
The union began a “Healthy Hospitals” campaign in 2006, focussed on the lowest paid workers in the public hospital system, moving the nearly 2000 SFWU members into one national Multi Employer Collective Agreement (MECA), and delivering a big lift in the wage rates and employment conditions of our members.
The DHBs were opposed to a National MECA, arguing that our members’ pay rates were determined by local labour markets rather than a national one (nurses) or an international one (doctors) and to complicate this the DHBs would not sit in the same room as the contractors (Compass, Spotless, ISS and OCS).
After nearly 12 months of bargaining, stopwork meetings and rallies, the Labour Government told the DHBs to conclude a MECA, although not with the contractors included. A case in the Employment Court arguing the DHBs had a duty to conclude a MECA was lost.
The union had discussions with the Minister of Health and the Government about funding a MECA settlement above the DHB financial allocations, including the cost for the contractors.
The Government put aside $17 million for a settlement and the union negotiators were forced to massage the conditions to meet these parameters in a settlement which was independently costed.
The DHB MECA was settled on good terms with many members getting back their weekend, public holiday and night penal rates and pay for cleaning supervisors, who had previously only been paid about 35 cents an hour above the cleaners’ rate, was boosted by about $2.00 an hour.
The base rate was set at $14.25 an hour ($3 an hour above the minimum wage) and a national service scale was introduced for the first time with a 5% increase at the second step and 3% increases up to step 5. To preserve the “local labour market” principle the DHBs managed to carve out an exception that non-metro DHB members could only progress up to step 4 and not be eligible for the top step. Current service and other allowances were incorporated into the high wage scale.
As there had previously been multiple DHB collective agreements, a standard set of conditions was negotiated into the MECA and any group that had better conditions had these preserved in separate DHB schedules.
The contractors then followed and each negotiated their Single Employer Collective Agreements on the basis that the same wage scale, progression system, penal rates and overtime rates would be applied, that the parties would try to reach agreement on a common set of employment conditions and any conditions above these would be preserved in separate schedules for each DHB group.
The implementation was mixed across contractors with resistance where contractors feared a reduction of their competitive advantage over other contractors and DHB directly employed services. Spotless members embarked on a stop-start form of strike action and Spotless responded by locking our 700 members out of their jobs until the union agreed to their terms for the collective agreement.
The Employment Court refused the union’s interim injunction application, but the members stood firm.
Eight days later, with pickets occurring daily outside each public hospital and the Auckland DHBs giving Spotless an ultimatum about fixing the dispute or having their contracts terminated, the Employment Court reversed its position and gave the union an injunction against the Spotless lockout.
Spotless had to quickly negotiate a settlement of the collective agreement and settle with the union for legal costs and back pay to the members. Over the next six months Spotless lost all of the Auckland contracts and the contract at Southland DHB.
Between 2008 and 2018 the contractors were compliant with settling for whatever the DHB offered in the MECA although the percentage increases during these years were low. The contractors also gradually all agreed to bargaining fee arrangements for their SECAs.
The 2018/19 Problem
In the 2018/19 round the union gained very large increases in wages and cemented in some strong obligations for employers around training and qualifications attainment. However, again the problem looms that the DHBs could refuse to fund the contractor increases after signing off the SECAs and the contractors may be stuck with paying the rates but not getting the funding for them.
The struggle of these workers for stability, security and decent lives continues and the story of contractors in the DHBs will have a new chapter written in the near future.
By John Ryall