Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

PoliticsMarch 30, 2020

Covid-19: Petitions launched demanding ‘hazard pay’ for essential workers

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Calls are growing for extra payment for those who continue to head out to work every day, including many on very low wages.

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Two petitions have been circulating over the weekend calling for essential workers who remain in their workplaces throughout the Covid-19 alert level four lockdown to receive “hazard pay”.

Among the workers deemed essential during this period are supermarket workers, health workers including nurses and cleaners, emergency services and bus drivers.

One petition, which as of the time of writing had more than 650 signatures, calls on the government “to create a fund in support of our essential workers forced to remain in work, in hazardous conditions during the Covid-19 lockdown”. The workers, it continues, are “putting themselves and their families at risk to ensure the country still has the necessities they need to survive during the National lockdown”.

Hazard pay – a term often used interchangeably with “danger money” – is defined by the United Nations as “a form of compensation granted to staff members who have been requested to remain and report for work in duty stations where very hazardous conditions, such as war or active hostilities, prevailed and where the evacuation of families and nonessential staff had taken place”.

A separate petition, which has collected just short of 150 signatures, urges the government to deliver hazard pay, stating: “These workers are coming into contact with multiple people every day and putting themselves and their bubble at high risk to the coronavirus … It is taxpayers’ obligation to ensure they are taken care of financially at the very least.”

Last night Foodstuffs, one of New Zealand’s two big supermarket groups, said it would pay a 10% bonus to workers “as a gesture of appreciation to essential staff”. Its supermarkets include New World, Pak’n Save and Four Square.

The group also announced, in the face of criticisms over reports that New World supermarkets had been telling workers they face leave without pay if they are unable to work over the lockdown, “all vulnerable employees who are unable to work will still be paid whilst they self isolate from home”.

Asked about those reports at a media briefing yesterday, the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said she was seeking more advice on the issue from Iain Lees-Galloway, the minister for workplace relations, and would be speaking more about the issue today.

“I see supermarkets as being in quite a particular position at the moment, not least for the fact that they have not experienced a downturn through Covid-19, so that’s why I want to come back with some quite specific advice,” she said.

Ardern said she was planning to “to give you a more comprehensive update on our supermarkets across a range of issues” at today’s briefing.

On Sunday the Council of Trade Unions launched a site where workers can report employers who are “using the pandemic as an excuse to unlawfully ignore [workers’] rights”.

CTU president Richard Wagstaff told The Spinoff he did not endorse the idea of hazard pay, however.

“’Hazard Pay’ or any kind of ‘danger money’ isn’t something that the CTU supports in any situation,” he said. “Our view is that hazards should be removed so that workers are safe at work. Putting in a payment suggests your employer doesn’t have to make you safe, as you’ve accepted a payment as compensation not to be.

“Health and safety should not be for sale, but an essential element of any job.”

Via a spokesperson, MBIE said the government “recognises and applauds the work being done by essential workers to keep New Zealanders safe and health during the alert level four period. In support of their essential staff, some employers may negotiate ‘hazard pay’ or additional compensation on top of current wages for workers doing essential work.

“We are aware that some employers have done this, however, additional pay cannot be a substitute for ensuring appropriate safety measures are implemented, including physical distancing and PPE. There is no legal requirement for a businesses to pay ‘hazard pay’, but all business, including essential services, must still comply with all of their obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015,” the spokesperson added.

“The government is working on how to support people doing essential work. The government also expects all employers to engage with their workers in good faith, including if this issue is raised by workers.”

This story was updated to include MBIE comment.

See also: Dispatch from the frontline: A supermarket checkout manager on life under Covid-19

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