Editorial: the church and workers’ rights

Cecily McNeill2010 The Hobbit films are safe – Time Warner and the New Zealand Government have cut a deal which gives the Hollywood movie maker a larger incentive to work…

Cecily McNeill

The Hobbit films are safe – Time Warner and the New Zealand Government have cut a deal which gives the Hollywood movie maker a larger incentive to work here, courtesy of the taxpayer. 

The catalyst for this deal was, ostensibly at least, industrial action.

The resulting law change, enacted under urgency suspending the democratic process which allows public discussion in select committees, means that workers’ rights have been further eroded in favour of the film makers. All film workers are now deemed to be contractors. Aside from the removal of employees’ rights to sick leave and holiday pay, workers will not be paid for time lost during a suspension of filming.

In 1891 after the Industrial Revolution had created a new underclass of workers with little protection from exploitative industrialists and only their labour with which to bargain, Pope Leo XIII issued what is regarded as the first of the social encyclicals, Rerum Novarum (Of New Things). Here he addressed the needs of society to take account of workers.

One of the encyclical’s key planks was the requirement that ‘special consideration be given to the weak and the poor. For the nation, as it were, of the rich, is guarded by its own defences and is in less need of governmental protection, whereas the suffering multitude, without the means to protect itself, relies especially on the protection of the state’. (#54)

Reflecting the climate of the day, the encyclical says‘Workers are not to be treated as slaves; justice demands that the dignity of human personality be respected in them …’ #31

Early in the actors’ dispute, actor Peter Elliott commented on TV3 that Sir Peter Jackson had made a lot of money from the Lord of the Rings films but not much had trickled down to the workers. But the dispute was never entirely about money as about the right of workers to the entitlements accruing to every other employee in this country.

One hundred years after the first social encyclical, John Paul II produced Centesimus Annus (the hundredth year) 1991.

This reasserted the essential principles of the earlier one – the natural right to the ownership of private property (and the limit placed on that right); the right of workers to form trade unions and of employers to form parallel organisations; the right to an adequate period of rest, recreation, safe and hygienic conditions of work; the right to a just wage (sufficient for an entire family) guaranteed by the State; the right to religious freedom. Those rights, says John Paul II, are as unchallangeable today as they were then.

The latest change in this country’s employment law, however, jeopardises the dignity of the person which comes from being treated fairly. As Peter Conway of the Council of Trade Unions says on page 10, it is starting to look like another bid to undermine workers’ rights.

‘Parliament passed this law … when it is also considering measures to remove workers’ rights to challenge unfair dismissal in their first 90 days of employment, to have their union representatives visit them at work and to enable employers to require sick notes from workers after only one day’s sick leave.’ Coincidence?