13 May 2020

Covid-19: Advocate reminds workers facing job loss 'no shame in standing up for what's right'

7:30 am on 13 May 2020

Staff threatened with dismissal and their employers need to be reminded their work rights have not been changed because of the Covid-19 crisis, says an employment law advocate.

Close-up. Smiling young businesswoman holding cardboard box with her things.

Photo: 123RF

Thousands of people have lost their jobs and many more are expected to be made redundant in the aftermath of the Covid-19 lockdown and border closure.

Employment advocate Ashleigh Fechney is warning businesses that the laws on firing staff have not been torn up.

"It's a situation we haven't seen before, but employment law hasn't changed," Fechney said.

"It's really disappointing to see many employers making these rash decisions," she said.

"The basic rules are, first of all an employer must act in good faith. So that means having these transparent conversations with your employees, and giving them an opportunity to respond.

"The second is that they must act fairly and reasonably in all the circumstances, so let's say if we're looking at a redundancy situation that means there still must be a process, a consultation period, the employee should still be given the appropriate time to provide feedback, there should still be a proposal."

Immigrants in particular were less likely to stand up for their rights and needed to know there was no shame in doing so, Fechney said.

Some work visa holders were stuck overseas, and employers were considering dismissing them.

"They still have to go through a process," she said. "So, part of that process might be 'is your employee needed right now?' - so if the employee actually doesn't have any work, then there's no basis to terminate the employment.

"Or if the employer is a huge company, and they've got the resources to be able to either use their existing staff or to hire temporary or casual staff members, they're going to find it really difficult to terminate someone in this time, especially at such an early stage I think of the coronavirus and the borders being closed.

"We don't have a lot of information - I think that any employer that chose to dismiss an employee that was stuck overseas right now would be facing some considerable risks."

Her advice for employers was to keep such workers on unpaid leave, and although there was no guarantee there would be work for them when they return, any decision would be made after they came back.

Being overseas when the border closed would count as a reasonable excuse for not being at work, she said.

"It's no different really than if someone was sick and can't return to work," she said.

"I think that's the main difference compared to an employee who just simply isn't turning up to work and isn't contacting their employer."

She has dealt with a small number of employees facing the sack in these circumstances, where she has reminded companies of the law.

"I absolutely understand how scared and worried [immigrants] are," she said.

"One thing that I've noticed with the migrant community is that they're really afraid to stand up.

"They don't want to challenge their employers' decisions, they just take it. They already think that they're lucky working in New Zealand and they don't want to push it.

"One thing I just want them to know is you're still a New Zealand employee and you still have the same rights as everyone else and there's no harm and no shame in standing up for what's right."

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