9 Feb 2023

Mahe Drysdale puts his case against High Performance Sport NZ before Employment Relations Authority

6:49 pm on 9 February 2023

By Ethan Griffiths, Open Justice reporter of NZ Herald

Mahé Drysdale on 20 February 2021 at the 2021 Rocket Foods New Zealand National Club Championships, on Lake Ruataniwha in Twizel.

Photo: Photosport

Champion New Zealand rower Mahé Drysdale says the agency responsible for high-performance sport in New Zealand is about "directing and dictating", instead of responding to the concerns of athletes.

The two-time Olympic gold medallist appeared before the Employment Relations Authority in Wellington today, as a landmark case between some of Aotearoa's elite rowers and cyclists and government agency High Performance Sport NZ (HPSNZ) began.

The Athletes' Cooperative, a newly-formed union of 60 elite rowers and cyclists chaired by Drysdale, is seeking to initiate collective bargaining with HPSNZ to negotiate an employment agreement.

As it stands, athletes are contracted to their relevant national sporting organisations, not HPSNZ. However, the organisation has significant influence over funding and resources at the elite level.

Drysdale believes it does not genuinely engage with athletes as much as it should, and that the wellbeing and financial concerns of athletes often fall on deaf ears.

Giving evidence before authority member Rowan Anderson, Drysdale said the relationship needed "more teeth".

"Right now, it's very much directing and dictating. When feedback is provided, there's no obligation for [HPSNZ] to listen to it.

"Our concerns are about not being consulted and concerns around entry and withdrawal of funding from HPSNZ."

Drysdale said that it could be construed as an employment relationship, as funding for the athletes comes from the agency.

HPSNZ, on the other hand, says the union members cannot enter collective bargaining as they do not have an employment relationship with the organisation.

"What this is about is whether High Performance Sport can be forced to bargain with a group of people it doesn't employ," lawyer for the agency Kylie Dunn said.

She later questioned what legal precedent a declaration would set, suggesting any union could bring a claim against HPSNZ.

"We have a very strong view that the sovereignty of the national sporting organisations is very important," Steve Tew, HPSNZ's Director of High Performance said, referring to the existing contractual relationships between the athletes and their relevant sporting bodies.

He added that HPSNZ was happy to meet with the union to discuss their concerns, but firmly said no employment relationship existed. "We have no legal relationship with the athletes."

Drysdale retired in 2021 but said he remained involved as some of the athletes were worried about speaking out themselves.

"Right now, I've got nothing to lose. I'm out of the sport."

Anderson told the parties that a determination must be issued within three months of the hearing. He reserved his decision.

* This story originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald.

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