Union leader slams new Labor government over pace of pay negotiations

Sydney Morning Herald, 28 April 2023

Powerful Health Services Union boss Gerard Hayes has blasted the new Labor government in NSW for “dragging their feet” on looming pay negotiations with tens of thousands of essential workers, in a significant intervention from one of the state party’s most influential figures.

A month after the NSW election, where Labor was returned to power after 12 years in opposition following its promise to remove the controversial cap on public sector wages, Hayes has criticised the government for what he says is a lack of progress on pay bargaining.

“I don’t think it’s anywhere near good enough,” he said.

“They don’t have time to muck around because people on very low wages don’t have time to wait to pay their mortgages or the groceries.”

As well as being the head of one of the state’s largest unions, Hayes is a member of Labor’s powerful administrative committee and his criticisms of the government are likely to cause considerable angst within its ranks.

The HSU, along with the NSW Teachers Federation, Nurses and Midwives Association and the Public Service Association will all see their enterprise agreement expire on July 1.

‘Does it take a month to understand how to open the door to the office? You can walk and chew gum at the same time.’

The union is pushing for considerable reform of its agreement, which Hayes says will make it easier for the government to increase pay rates by removing outdated award elements. But he was concerned at the failure to begin bargaining.

“It shouldn’t be up to me to say ‘this is how you can find the money to fund the health service’,” he said.

Hayes also said he found it “concerning and confusing” that union leaders still had little clarity around Labor’s plans to scrap the former government’s controversial public sector wages cap, a key plank of its election campaign.

Removing the cap requires passing legislation, and the new parliament will not sit until next month. But despite the NSW election only being held a month ago, Hayes believes Labor should have begun consultation with the unions on establishing the framework for removing the cap.

“Does it take a month to understand how to open the door to the office? You can walk and chew gum at the same time, and at the minimum, there should be by now a clear process everyone understands for how this is going to move forward,” he said.

“If [removing the cap] was a passing thing they said in opposition that they might look at, sure, but this was the major position held in the election and everyone sat back and waited.

“Why people are dragging their feet is beyond me. I’ve raised all this with [Health Minister] Ryan Park and you know it’s all well-intentioned and so forth, but I’m not interested in talking any more, I’m interested in outcomes.”

While the HSU has yet to hear from the government, nurses union secretary Shaye Candish said she was not concerned with the pace of negotiations, while the NSW Teachers Federation and the education department will begin talks on Friday after Education Minister Pru Car directed bureaucrats to begin working on a new deal this week.

Teachers’ union president Angelo Gavrielatos said the government had “fulfilled that part of their commitment”, while also welcoming the announcement this week to delay administrative tasks for teachers. He said he expected the wages cap would be removed “expeditiously” once parliament resumed.

“The cap was a core commitment of the [Chris] Minns government and the general public would expect the legislative program necessary to achieve that would be expedited,” he said.

Labor campaigned on a promise to scrap the public sector wages cap, first put in place by the former Coalition premier Barry O’Farrell in 2011. The wages cap currently limits public sector pay increases to 3 per cent annually, with the possibility of an extra 0.5 per cent if workers can show increased productivity gains.

In a statement, a government spokesperson said that “having been in government for a month we have met with most unions and are very pleased with the progress we have made in relation to the wages cap”.

“We’ve said it would take time but we’re determined to do it.”