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April 3, 2006 | by  | in Opinion |
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Interesting times

Those of you who’ve been keeping up with international news will know about the considerably large student protests going on in France at the moment. On the 8th of March the French government rushed through a law allowing employers to dismiss workers under the age of 26, without reason, for the first two years of their employment. There have been hundreds of thousands of French students taking to the streets in protest.

Already, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin is looking for a way to back down on the law, and is talking to union leaders to find a compromise solution. So far talks with Union and student leaders had been unsuccessful. Students in France are saying that the changes will create a generation of “throwaway workers”. Parallels are being drawn between the current student protests and the student and worker movement protests in 1968 which came very close to overthrowing the French government. The current round of protests is being largely led by students, the biggest crisis the Villepin government has faced in its time in office.

Back in New Zealand there are similar rumblings. A couple of weeks back, a private members bill was introduced by National MP Wayne Mapp giving employers a 90 day probation period for new employees. Like the French law this proposed bill would give employers in NZ the right to dismiss workers without justification. This draconian bill made it through its first reading in parliament with support from National, Act, United Future, New Zealand First and 3 out of 4 of the Maori Party MPs (Hone Harawira opposed it).

Meanwhile there are some encouraging things happening for NZ workers. For the last few months workers union Unite and various other groups and individuals have run a campaign called ‘Supersize My Pay’. This campaign demands that the minimum wage be increase to $12 an hour and calls for the abolition of youth rates. Currently the minimum wage for under 18s is less than for workers over 18, and for workers under 16 there is no legal minimum wage. This campaign ties in with Unite Union’s major push to organise fast food workers, most of whom are young workers on minimum wage. Last week this campaign had a significant victory when Restaurant Brands (the owner of Starbucks, KFC, Pizza Hutt, and numerous 0800 call centres) made an offer to significantly increase their workers wages. One of the most significant victories was a concession by Restaurant Brands that paying youth workers less, solely because of their age wasn’t justified. The current offer will increase the pay of workers under 18 to 90 percent of the adult rate, which for many young workers will be an increase of roughly 34 percent.

Recently Radical Youth in Auckland led a secondary school student protest against youth rates. Roughly a thousand students came out to protest against youth rates. This was probably one of the reasons for the Restaurant Brands offer. The next goal of the campaign is to get the government to raise the minimum wage to $12 and to scrap youth rates, so young workers have the same minimum wage as adult workers. Some progress has been made on this front. A private members bill from Green MP Sue Bradford calling for these changes made it through its first reading. However this bill only goes part of the way, as it only increases the minimum wage for workers aged between 16 and 18. The bill as it currently stands does nothing for workers under 16, who have no minimum wage.

What protests in France and by Radical Youth in Auckland have proved is that the best way to win is through mass movements. Overwhelming organised opposition to the new French industrial law is making it near impossible for the French state to implement it. Likewise, the growing pressure in New Zealand to abolish youth rates and increase the minimum wage is starting to help win better conditions for young workers here. The NZUSA Student Income and Expenditure Survey in 2004 showed that 90% of students work whilst studying. A great number of the students who work are on minimum wage jobs and for first-years under the age of 18 the youth minimum wage is still a grim reality.

This week’s Student Representative Council meeting is discussing the issue of youth rates. A motion will be put to the student meeting calling on VUWSA to support the ‘Supersize My Pay’ campaign. VUWSA already has policy in place supporting the abolition of youth rates and increasing wages. NZUSA currently support the ‘Supersize My Pay’ campaign as do a number of its member associations around the country. The SRC is at 12:30 in the Quad this Wednesday (April 5th).

Also this Friday a member of the Ombudsmen’s office is visiting Victoria University. If you would like to talk to the Ombudsmen’s office about issues relating to the University, or related issues, they are keen for you to come and see them. The representative of the Office of the Ombudsmen will be in the VUWSA meeting room at Kelburn campus on Friday April the 7th from 11am to 12noon.

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