28 Nov 2018

Coalition compromise gets workplace bill over the line

8:00 am on 28 November 2018

Labour has struck a deal on its flagship workplace legislation that appeases its coalition partners, businesses, and unions.

Iain Lees-Galloway, Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety, ACC, and of Immigration.

Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

The Employment Relations Amendment Bill passed its second reading at Parliament last night with the agreed changes to be made by supplementary order paper at the House committee stage.

Its passage had looked on shaky ground when New Zealand First put its foot down on behalf of employers, but New Zealand First leader Winston Peters now says he's happy and his party has voted in favour to prove it.

"You don't get always what you want, but you get as much as you possibly can in the interests of the economy," he said.

Labour's core workplace relations reforms will still go ahead. Collective bargaining will be strengthened, which it says will mean wage increases for some of the country's lower paid. It'll mean compulsory rest and meal breaks, and it will limit the use of 90-day trial periods.

The sticking point was when New Zealand First realised employers would be required to enter multi-employer bargaining negotiations - or MECAs.

The concern was employers - particularly in the regions - may end up in negotiations for years on end with no opt-out and no conclusion.

But now they can opt-out, on "reasonable grounds".

The SOP - in the Workplace Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway's name - also adds "opposition to concluding a multi-employer collective agreement" as one of those reasons.

Employers and Manufacturers Association senior manager Kim Campbell said the bill will give unions "plenty to chew on".

"Some of the most obnoxious parts have been mitigated a little bit," he said.

Mr Campbell said it was a credit to New Zealand First and Mr Peters that the bill had been softened but said unions will still have power.

"They will do their best - industrial trouble is certainly going to come," he said.

Mr Campbell said the 90-day trial should have been retained across all employers and will hinder job seekers.

Council of Trade Unions president Richard Wagstaff said this was all a bit overblown and the MECA provisions they've been left with are no worse than what they had before.

"There was a lot of scaremongering out there, there was a lot of fear put into people about the Employment Relations Act changes and a strong political campaign trying to stop them," he said.

"Largely these changes are reinstating what we've had in the past - including around MECAs - and we're happy with that. That's what we thought the purpose of these amendments were and that's what we've got."

The changes will also give union delegates better access to workplaces that are undergoing collective bargaining, which adds to the requirement for employers to pass on union information to new employees and pay full wages while staff undertake union activities.

On 90-day trials, Labour's met in the middle somewhat.

Mr Peters claimed it was his foot that stopped the door closing on them altogether, ensuring small businesses with fewer than 20 staff could continue using three-month trial periods.

Business New Zealand had hoped to retain the 90-day trial across the board, or at least keep them for businesses with up to 50 staff. But chief executive Kirk Hope says compared with what Labour originally proposed, he's quite happy with the reforms as they look now.

"Three of the four things that we focused on the government's listened to and changed," he said.

"There's still an outstanding issue around the duty to conclude bargaining. We think if that's passed it would breach international law and we're going to keep talking to the government on that."

However, Mr Lees-Galloway is certain this is the final version of the bill that will be passed.

"This is coalition government. We have struck a balance between the views of three different parties that have three different positions on industrial relations," he said.

"And we've struck a good balance we think between the needs of business and the needs of workers - I'm very happy with this bill."

Still deeply unhappy with the reform is the political opposition.

National's own changes are being repealed before their eyes, and industrial relations spokesperson Scott Simpson vocalised their opposition during debate on the bill last night.

"This is a bill that will significantly increase costs to businesses, and put at risk a wide range of New Zealand's small businesses and enterprises. That ultimately puts jobs at risk and puts the economy at risk," he told the House.

"This bill is part of a suite of legislative changes that the government wants to introduce and it's just really the beginning of their political debt back to the trade union movement."