10 May 2021

Government urged to rethink public sector pay freeze decision

7:21 pm on 10 May 2021

The government is continuing to defend its decision to restrict wage increases for public sector workers.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Finance Minister Grant Robertson arrive at a press conference at Parliament.

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern Photo: 2020 Getty Images

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Grant Robertson both fronted the media today to explain the rationale behind it.

"This is not, as has been reported, a pay freeze," Robertson told a BNZ-Deloitte breakfast event in Auckland.

The policy was unveiled last week and means for those earning over $100,000, it will be a complete freeze.

For those earning over $60,000 it will be a freeze unless under exceptional circumstances. For the 25 percent of public sector workers earning below $60,000, it will be business as usual.

The announcement drew immediate criticism, and fears over what it could do for staffing shortages if workers decided to look elsewhere.

Robertson said that was not the full story.

"We've still got pay equity negotiations under way, we've still got the ability for people to move up the bands, so there is possibilities for pay movement.

"The Public Service Commissioner has outlined his expectations. It now goes into the negotiation."

He added there were also a number of Collective Agreements coming up for renegotiation and he would be meeting with unions this week to make his case.

Elsewhere, on TVNZ, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was also defending the policy.

She said in previous economic crises, past governments responded by capping the workforce, and implementing blanket pay freezes.

"We have not done that, we have said we want to keep seeing those on the lowest wages moving up.

"We do have very low-paid workers within the public sector. We want to keep seeing those wages being lifted."

But these arguments were not well received.

PSA national secretary Erin Polaczuk

Erin Polaczuk. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Public Service Association (PSA) national president Erin Polaczuk said pay bands only existed for professions like nursing, policing and teaching.

"Many of our members working in agencies like DIA [Department of Internal Affairs], DOC [Department of Conservation], the Ministry of Transport, the Ministry of Health, MFAT [Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade], don't have access to that type of assistance.

"So what they get in collective bargaining, will be all they get by way of a pay increase."

'In real terms, teachers will experience pay cuts'

Even for the occupations where pay grades do exist, there was still an annoyance.

Post-Primary Teachers Association Auckland regional chair and teacher Michael Cabral-Terry said pay grades stopped at Grade 11 with an annual salary of $90,000.

He said about three quarters of all teachers across the country were at either the top grade or the one below.

"In real terms, teachers will experience pay cuts, because of course inflation will go up, house prices will go up, costs of living will go up, food will go up, and our salaries will stay where they are, on the basis of austerity."

He said there was also confusion.

Collective Agreement bargaining for teachers will go ahead next year, but he said there was little point if the government had no money to offer.

"If you're going into a salary negotiation round, that is going to require paid increases for people that are currently subject to a salary freeze, I can't see how it's going to work."

He said it was difficult to see how that was good faith on the behalf of the government.

The prime minister said the policy was the government's starting point, and would not affect negotiations.

"We will not stop the work we're doing on pay equity, it doesn't affect our existing agreements, and of course we do have to go through a good-faith process with the unions.

"This is our guidance, this is our starting point, our perspective on what we need to do, and now we come together with employee representatives."

A nursing student about to graduate who wished to remain anonymous said while the measures would not affect her pay directly when she entered the workforce, there would be some indirect consequences.

"The nature of our profession is that there is a strong level of teamwork involved. Within nursing, we're taught directly [by] our senior staff members.

"If the senior workforce that I work with have an increasing level of burnout and fatigue and exhaustion, and I guess, hopelessness surrounding their wages, particularly because of this freeze, then I'm concerned how that will impact our team."

Polaczuk from the PSA was worried other consequences would include staff moving to different ministries in search of a pay rise, or moving to the private sector.

'Back down, change, amend'

PSA president Benedict Furguson told Checkpoint he was hoping Ardern would listen to what union members had to say at the meeting tomorrow.

"We've been inundated with our members coming to us via email, texts just horrified at the stance of the government. It feels like a kick in the gut for the hard work we've done over the last year keeping our borders safe, keeping New Zealand going through this pandemic.

"Tomorrow we're hoping the prime minister will listen to us; seems there has been a bit of a change in their tone over the last day. We're hoping they'll come out and change their position and we're hoping those guidelines will be changed."

He said the union was hoping the government would "back down, change, amend" the decision.

There would be discussions on taking the matter to court, he said.

"Nothing's off the table at the moment."

Modest pay rises for everyone in the public sector would be acceptable, he said, with it being at about 2 percent. He took back the 2 percent comment and suggested a flat rate increase instead.

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