Workers and employers have taken predictable positions on legislation to usher in fair pay deals currently before parliament. A concerted campaign to have them declared illegitimate has been called “misinformation” by critics – and it has also posed a problem for the media.

Kirk Hope, CEO of Business NZ
Photo: RNZ/Dan Cook

On May 16, the New Zealand Herald carried a headline that read like bad news for the government and supporters of its major labor market reform.

It read: ‘Proposal to change fair compensation arrangements condemned by UN agency, Business NZ’.

The story went on to say that the United Nations’ International Labor Organization (ILO) had placed New Zealand on a list of “worst case” violations of international labor treaties, alongside Afghanistan and the United Nations. Venezuela, and just ahead of Nigeria.

But there were a few problems with the report.

New Zealand has not been condemned by the ILO. He was not on a list of “worst case” violations of international labor agreements.

And the reason it appeared “just ahead of Nigeria” was because the ILO list was alphabetized.

The title of the list released by the UN agency did not mention the worst cases or international labor treaties at all. His entry on fair pay agreements appeared under the inscrutable headline ‘Preliminary list of cases as submitted by the social partners committee on the application of standards’, or in plainer English: ‘Things we are going to consider at the future”.

It was found that Herald had based its story on information provided by Business NZ, which created the ‘worst case’ title and implied that the ILO had already condemned fair pay deals.

Business NZ chief executive Kirk Hope described the list as a ‘nasty quarantine for labor relations’, saying the legislation breaches ILO Convention 98which stipulates that “workers’ and employers’ organizations shall enjoy adequate protection against any act of interference committed by each other or by their agents”.

At that time, the Herald editor Duncan Bridgeman said Media monitoring they accepted the “good faith” information from Business NZ.

“We have contacted the ILO for a response to Business NZ’s comments. However, we accept that we could have looked more closely at the details of the source report,” he said.

Business NZ employment relations policy manager Paul Mackay admitted his title was changed when Stuff reported it qualifying error, but he added, “It doesn’t have to be a past tense violation. An intent to rape is just as bad.”

This week, the ILO meeting in Geneva examined this alleged intent to violate, and did not recommend any review or change proposed legislation on fair compensation arrangements.

He urged the government to “continue to examine” the bill in consultation with trade unions and employers’ groups while ensuring that it complies with international labor treaties.

NZ business issued a press release claiming that the ILO’s findings indicate that the bill currently does not comply with Convention 98 and “has been misinterpreted by some commentators”.

But a source with inside knowledge of the ILO decision said Media monitoring nothing in the decision says that the current legislation violates labor conventions.

“Most of the discussion of BusinessNZ’s complaint to the ILO suggested that the legislation was not breached, with the Australian government being one of those who have come out in favor of fair pay deals,” said the NBR political editor Brent Edwards reported this week.

A Business NZ notice board on fair pay agreement legislation.

A Business NZ notice board on fair pay agreement legislation.
Photo: Robbie Nicol

The saga is part of a concerted campaign by Business NZ against fair pay deals that has been criticized as overstated or misleading by worker advocates and some politicians.

Its online campaign titled “Your Work Your Way” calls on New Zealanders to reject FPAs. Business NZ also ran digital and radio advertisements with slogans such as: “Fair pay deals are like stockings for Christmas. Nobody wants it.”

(Fact check: Socks can be a great gift if they’re the right socks, and some workers might see a potential pay rise as even better.)

Other Business NZ claims have been criticized as hyperbolic or outright false by people including Workplace Relations Minister Michael Wood.

A billboard says if “10% of workers want an FPA, 100% of workers need to get one.” They won’t. Any agreement should be ratified by the majority of workers.

Business NZ’s opposition to FPAs comes as no surprise.

Kirk Hope rejected the government’s offer to be the default negotiating party for employers six months ago, saying “the scheme will do more harm to businesses and employees than good”.

But supporters and opponents alike would have expected Business NZ’s objections to be based on genuine philosophical and practical differences. Instead, his campaign has occasionally strayed into the kind of misinformation that can damage an organization’s reputation.

Auckland Council has demanded an explanation from Business NZ and a spokesperson say stuff his annual membership renewal would be reconsidered this month.

All of this also presents a conundrum for the media.

Business NZ has dozens of major New Zealand companies as members and has an important perspective on this legislation that is worth noting.

But while Press Council principles require reporting to be balanced, it must also be accurate.

If a significant portion provides information that is not true, it jeopardizes the media’s compliance with this standard, even if they stick to the usual “both sides” framing.

Earlier this week TVNZ news published a story titled: “Employers, workers divided over fair pay agreements”.

They certainly disagreed with each other, but the story said the ILO said “adjustments may be needed in the final legislation” – a line that does not actually appear in the organization’s statement.

This week Media monitoring asked Business NZ if he regretted changing the words of the ILO to say that New Zealand had landed on a list of “the worst cases of violation of international labor treaties”, or to assert that she was part of a “wicked quarantine”.

We also asked if he stands by his recent statement that the Fair Remuneration Agreements Bill in its current form is “not in line with ILO Convention 98”.

He has not responded so far.

Rebecca Macfie, an experienced labor journalist who covered fair pay deals for The listener and Writingsaid Business NZ’s campaign against the legislation was the strongest it had seen since the Labor government led by Helen Clark introduced the Labor Relations Act In 2000.

“I think they looked over the line of hard lobbying. I think what they presented is inaccurate, especially in two statements to the media,” she said.

“Some of the ways they reported what the ILO committee decided … are wrong. You just have to look at the words and compare the two documents.

“I have great respect for the people who lead their organization – and I deal with them on the basis of respect and the fact that they bring their expertise in this area, just as I do when I speak to the labor movement. So I think they made a mistake here in how they approached that,” she said.

Macfie said the campaign has in some cases “hacked” the media, using its commitment to reflect all aspects of a debate to trick it into reprinting dubious or, in some cases, untrue statements.

Her approach has been to disregard what she considers to be misrepresentations and instead report on the documents at hand.

“We have to do a factual report, and in this particular case it wasn’t difficult because all the documents were there.”

In other words, she sticks to the old adage: if one person tells you it’s sunny and another says it’s raining, the reporter’s job isn’t to report both sides, is to look out the window.