Sleepover Wages (Settlement) Bill; third reading

Press Release – The Maori Party

This afternoon in the House has been a bit like a Game of Two Halves. The first half was legislation that we are appalled is being passed through, under urgency, and lacking the due consideration it requires for the public to engage and understand …Sleepover Wages (Settlement) Bill; third reading Rahui Katene, MP for Te Tai Tonga Thursday 6 October 2011; 5.50

This afternoon in the House has been a bit like a Game of Two Halves.

The first half was legislation that we are appalled is being passed through, under urgency, and lacking the due consideration it requires for the public to engage and understand the full implications of the bill.

I’m referring of course to the Covert Video Camera Surveillance – a bill we have opposed with vigour since the moment it was first suggested.

But the second half – this Bill – is a completely different story.

This bill signals the successful resolution of a longstanding claim concerning about 5700 of the country’s lowest-paid workers.

It’s a story about counting the value of the dedicated commitment so many of these workers have made to making life just that much easier for the people they are supporting.

The Bill enacts the commitment of Cabinet to raise sleepover rates for disability support workers from the current IHC rates of $34 a night to the minimum wage of $13 an hour over the next fifteen months.

And I want to say that the Maori Party is proud of our Minister, Tariana Turia, for the work she has done alongside of the Minister of Health, to get this deal through.

In many ways this is being described as a landmark deal – a hundred million dollar opportunity to pay these unsung heroes the minimum wage for overnight sleepover shifts from Christmas next year.

The deal includes backpay from July 2005 of half the difference between what workers were paid and the minimum wage applying at the time – up to $70,000 for some workers.

It is a wonderful early Christmas present, and I am proud to be part of a Parliament that will enable this legislation to pass.

I have a personal association with the sleepover issue.

One of my sons spent over five years supporting young people with intellectual disabilities in a respite home.

He would take on the night shifts over the weekend, and he and another worker would base themselves at the residence, and prepare for come what may.

And often those nights with the rangatahi were challenging to say the least.

It was not at all uncommon for them to somehow escape the house in various states of undress, and embark on a long walk to town along the nearby railway tracks.

When he would finally catch up with the absconders, inevitably it was somewhat of an ordeal to persuade them to come back home, and to stay home for the duration.

The other thing of note from this time, was that often once the residents were fed; showered; toileted and in bed for the night; the real work would begin.

Soiled clothes and linen would be washed; bathrooms scrubbed; the house brought back to the semblance of order; and paper work done.

Mr Speaker, this was not just a one-off occurrence. Working with young people with intellectual disabilities was a challenge; often there would be an incident that would require the workers to be intensively involved in providing supervision, support, management and a quality of care.

And yet here’s the rub.

Between the hours of 10pm and 7am, my son and his co-workers would receive the pricely sum of about $34 as the sleepover rate – that’s equates to about $3.80 an hour – which is barely the price of a bottle of milk.

Such a pitiful payment fails to reflect the importance of there being appropriate and responsible care available for some of our most vulnerable citizens. It also fails to take into account that the work that is undertaken during the time when presumably one is meant to be asleep, is arduous, back-breaking work. It is physical work.

Workers were not allowed to leave the premises in that time, they were to stay on site and be available for any eventuality. It is not simply a matter of curling up on the bed for a good sleep and hoping that everyone else will do the same. Far from it.

And frequently it requires a level of compassion, of understanding and sensitivity that will ensure appropriate and respectful care of the people they are responsible for looking after.

As my son put it – it requires a heart.

He also told me the management and the staff he worked with were wonderful people – they were committed, they were kind; they were dedicated to meeting the needs of those in the residence.

But when it came down to it, $34 is a pittance for the work, the skill and the humanity required to exercise these roles.

I wanted to tell this story today, because sometimes I think we speak to legislation with generic terms like employer / employee / the health and disability sector / and minimum wage; and we forget about the human dimension to this situation.

I want to congratulate IDEA services, Timata Hou Limited and the Service and Food Workers Union for their perseverance in doing what they can to improve the conditions for those providing such vital services for vulnerable people overnight.

I acknowledge too, the submission made to the Health Select Committee by the Service and Food Workers Union Nga Ringa Tota, the Public Service Association and IDEA Services Ltd.

And I recognise the efforts of Business New Zealand and the Employers Chamber of Commerce for taking up the opportunity to present a submission, even under such dire timeframes.

But at the end of the day, while the Government, the unions and the providers have come to the party, our greatest accolades must be reserved for those who work sleepovers – and the difference they make to the lives of the many people they support.

The Maori Party is very much a supporter of the view put forward by Mahatma Ghandi who said “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members”.

We believe the moral test of any society is how the most vulnerable members fare.

And in this regard we wholeheartedly endorse the Sleepover Wages (Settlement) Bill to:

• provide certainty for employees, employers and the Government;

• to establish a sustainable pathway to improve the pay for thousands of employees who undertake this vital work;

• and most of all to ensure continuity of care for those who will benefit the most from the impact of this legislation – the people who require the support of others to stay overnight.

ENDS

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