Outrageous Treatment of Private Sector Blood Test Workers – Government Must Step In!

APEX union blood test technicians and scientists working for Awanui Labs, formerly SCL Labs, took strike action over the week Wednesday 12 July to Tuesday 18 July, affecting labs from the Hawke’s Bay right to the south of the country. They are speaking out about Awanui’s incredulous offer of absolutely no increase in pay at all. The previous 3-year collective agreement, which expired at the end of June, did not anticipate the acceleration of price inflation that took hold in 2021. It delivered pay rises of only 3 percent in 2020, 2 percent in 2021 and 1 percent in 2022. Awanui’s latest offer is an absolute insult.

Awanui laboratory workers were already badly off, being paid much less than their public sector counterparts. The starting rate for technicians is the Minimum Wage. The top of the pay scale is only $58,408 a year, which is significantly less than the median wage of $61,692.80 per annum based on a 40-hour week.

At the same time as pay being savagely eroded, workloads have increased enormously since the COVID pandemic. The higher rate of blood testing still continues. The mix of low pay and work intensity has caused a high turnover rate and constant training-up of new employees. Awanui can easily afford to pay better wages. According to APEX, the company paid out a $43 million dividend to shareholders last year.

The background to this state of affairs is political. An opinion piece by Ian Powell in Scoop is spot-on. Powell says:

“The nub of the issue is the privatisation of the health system’s public hospital laboratories which began under former Labour health minister Pete Hodgson (2005-07). It was halted under former National health minister Tony Ryall (2008-14) and resumed under his National successor Jonathan Coleman (2014-17). Privatisation halted again under Labour health minister David Clark.”

The result of these political decisions is a patchwork of laboratory testing across the country comprising public and private laboratories. In the South Island and the Wellington Region Awanui has a near monopoly for receiving blood test referrals from the public health system. Awanui has but one object – profits. From its monopoly hold Awanui makes money by fleecing Te Whatu Ora – Health New Zealand and private customers. 

The Awanui laboratory workers deserve everyone’s solidarity. Strikes may result in some movement from the company, but they are unlikely to win the union’s claim in full for parity with similar professional groups in the health sector. The problem that has been created by politics needs to be solved by politics. As Ian Powell again states:

“[Te Whatu Ora] Chief Executive Margie Apa needs to step into the arena and insist that Awanui bargain in good faith with APEX representing an exploited workforce. This includes a pay offer that recognises the impact of the high cost of living on this workforce and the recruitment and retention pressures. 

But there is another step to be taken. [Health Minister] Dr Verrall needs to provide the necessary political leadership to ensure that these hospital laboratory privatisations are terminated at their next expiry dates.”

Pressure from the trade union movement as a whole should be applied on the Labour government, while it is still in office, to commit to put an end to contracting-out the vital part of the health system that blood testing is.