24 Sep 2014

National's proposed labour laws

11:24 am on 24 September 2014

National has highlighted employment law changes as one of its key priorities in the first 100 days in Government. Proposed changes will affect collective agreements, the 90-day trial period, strike action and rest and meal break provisions.

What's happening?

The Employment Relations Amendment Act has already been through the select committee process, but the legislation did not pass its third and final reading following the resignation of former ACT MP John Banks from Parliament in the last term.

The changes will give employers more power during the bargaining process.

National says workers' rights will still be protected under the Employment Relations Amendment Act.

National says workers' rights will still be protected under the Employment Relations Amendment Act. Photo: PHOTO NZ

Why do firms need more power?

National says the changes will promote much-needed flexibility, though it insists workers rights will still be protected.

Business lobby groups approve, saying the changes are modest and allows firms to get the workplace arrangements they need to compete.

Unions oppose it, saying it will drive down wages and erode workers rights.

Ok. So what are some of the changes?

The Government says it wants to return to the original position in the Employment Relations Act, where the duty of good faith did not require employers and unions to conclude a collective agreement. It says bargaining has become unnecessarily protracted and costly.

Employers will also be able to opt out of multi-employer bargaining; while the changes also remove the requirement for all new employees to be employed under the collective for the first 30 days.

Sounds like it's going to be harder for unions?

Yes, it will. The Council of Trade Unions argues that the changes strengthen an employer's hand to press for changes within a collective, or even pressure workers to accept individual contracts.

Unions argue the changes will drive down wages? How so?

The CTU cites a 2012 Cabinet paper that points out the repeal the 30-day rule for new workers allows employers to offer individual contracts terms and conditions that are less than those in collective agreements.

But the same paper says workers will continue to have access to a copy of the collective as well as an individual agreement. And employees will still be able to join a union at any time and be covered by the collective.

Anything else?

Union officials must also get the consent of the employer to enter a workplace, though it can't be unreasonably withheld. Employers can also directly talk to union members during bargaining.

In both cases, unions say this is a return to the 1990s when employers effectively barred meaningful access to members, or used intimidatory tactics to force workers' to accept the employers' position.

Businesses say some unions have unnecessarily disrupted workplaces, and it is reasonable to work out an appropriate time that suits both sides.

The new law allows for more "flexible" rest and meal breaks.

The new law allows for more "flexible" rest and meal breaks. Photo: PHOTO NZ

What happens if union members decide to take strike action?

Written notification of any proposed strike will need to be given. Employers can also reduce pay during partial strikes. That makes strikes a less powerful weapon.

Employers also face some restrictions - they too will have to give written notification for a lock-out.

What about my tea break? Is it still safe?

The changes allows more "flexibility" over rest and meal break provisions.

Unions argue that could spell the end of tea or lunch breaks. Business New Zealand says that is rubbish, as most firms already have agreements in place for that.

So, this is part of the flexible workplace firms say is needed? Anything else?

Yes. Employers and all employees can request changes to their workplace arrangement under the proposed legislation, not just those picking up children from care or school.

It also remove limits on how often an employer can seek to change an employees workplace arrangement.

Employers have a month to respond, compared to three months under the current rules.

The Government says these changes will suit people who have little or no access to flexible work, such as low-paid or low-skilled employees, or those whose caring roles can change suddenly.

Unions argue it will find themselves at the beck and call of employers at a moment's notice, and face an increasing threat of entering unstable work situations.

The 90-day trial would now include all workers.

The 90-day trial would now include all workers. Photo: PHOTO NZ

What about the 90-day trial period?

The trial period for new workers remains in place. Employees have no right to appeal against unfair dismissal if fired within 90 days.

Last year, figures showed more than 11,000 employers fired at least one worker during a trial period in the first year after the 90-day work trial law was introduced in 2011.

Unions say employers are abusing it. Business New Zealand says most employers are using it responsibly, and many firms are hiring people when they might not have done otherwise.

What about the controversial vulnerable worker provisions?

This relates to part 6A of the amendment bill that allows vulnerable workers, such as cleaners, to stay on at their workplace even if there is a change in management.

Small- and medium-sized businesses, defined at those which employ less than 20 people, have been excluded.

The select committee found these firms can find it financially onerous to take on staff under their previous terms and conditions of employment.

  • Unions fearful of National policies
  • Govt seeks employment law feedback
  • Ministry says 90-day trials working
  • Employers want law change revisited