Don’t Come Monday! New Labour Laws Conflict with Church Teaching

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 54, Spring 2010

John Maynard

You are enjoying your new job and a new circle of friends. Then you get an unexpected email at home from your boss. It’s a shocker.

‘We regret to advise that your employment is terminated effective today. Your final pay will be in the bank on Wednesday next week’.

Two sentences. No reason. No explanation. You have been given a DCM – ‘Don’t Come Monday’.

A terrible feeling of self-doubt and insecurity may follow. Have I done something wrong? Did I upset the boss? No one told me anything. I’m sacked!

Who has the power in this employment relationship? Is this just?

The Government has just introduced an amendment Bill to the Employment Relations Act to change its ‘90 day fire at will’ law from applying only to enterprises employing less than 20 employees to all workplaces in the country. If passed into law, employment legislation will be tipped even more heavily in favour of capital and employers, and further undermine the bargaining power of ordinary workers. Many more DCMs can be expected.

NZ Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly has made an interesting comment about the ‘principles’ which appear to be behind the Government’s proposed law changes: all employers are benevolent, trustworthy and law abiding – and all workers are lazy skivers.

Over 700,000 workers change jobs each year. To get a new job you may have to sign a contract which includes a 90 day trial period. Employers are to be given the power to be able to impose a ‘fire at will’ trial period in your employment agreement – if you don’t sign the ‘agreement’ you don’t get the job. So much for the Government’s assurances that workers have a choice about entering into a 90-day trial period.

If you are not planning to start a new job, a member of your family or circle of friends is sure to be – especially someone leaving school or university for their first job.

Probationary periods for new employees are already provided for in the current labour law – clause 67 of the Employment Relations Act. However, probationary workers have the right to know during their probationary period if they are doing anything wrong, what they need to do to get it right, and the consequences if they continue to under-perform. These are important principles of natural justice and recognised as such by our Employment Courts.

The Government wants to remove these rights to natural justice and to introduce almost 20 changes to employment law. A number of the changes would significantly alter the power relationships in the workplace in favour of employers:

You could be instantly dismissed within the first 90 days of new employment for no given reason. The legal grounds to challenge an unjust dismissal, or to require a reason to be given for your dismissal, are removed. You would have nowhere to go to seek justice.

If you are dismissed after the first 90 days, and you are successful in challenging an unfair dismissal through the labour courts, you will no longer be given your job back as of right. A court could find that your sacking was unjust, but then not require the employer to allow you to return to your job and workplace community.

If you want to join a union, the employer can be very obstructive in allowing a union organiser into your workplace. A worker could request assistance from their union organiser in a dispute with their employer, but the employer could take two days before having to respond to the request – and then may continue to attempt to deny the organiser having access to the worker.

Employers will be able to interfere in relationships and communications between unions and union members during wage negotiations. The effect will be to allow an employer to try to undermine the workers’ confidence in their union representatives and to try to tip the outcome of negotiations in favour of the employer.

If you or a dependent family member is sick even for a single day, the employer can demand a medical certificate.

The Catholic Church has a long tradition of social teachings regarding the rights of workers in the workplace and in wider society, including the role of workers in sustaining a life of dignity and security for themselves and their families. But National-led governments have favoured the rights of capital and employers over workers.

The last time the National Government was in power, they were about to introduce the anti-union Employment Contracts Act on May 1st 1991 coinciding with the 100th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 groundbreaking encyclical on workers’ rights, Rerum Novarum. May 1st is also the feast day of St Joseph the Worker. When the law was finally introduced two weeks later, astonishingly one significant word was not to be found in the legislation. The word ‘union’ did not appear!

Over the past 100 years, Catholic Social Teaching has had plenty to say about relationships in the workplace – rights, responsibilities, justice. And the importance of good relations and of there being a balance of power between employers and employees.

Probably the most significant encyclical was John Paul II’s On Human Work published in 1981 which stresses the dignity that work can bring to someone’s life and how essential it is that fairness and justice prevail in the workplace. While touching on many issues relating to working conditions, On Human Work says ‘work remains a good thing, not only because it is useful and enjoyable, but because it expresses and increases workers’ dignity. Through work we not only transform the world, we are transformed ourselves, becoming more a human being’.[1] In other words, the pope spells out the belief that work is not something to be endured but rather something constructive and essential to the proper development and growth of the individual and society.

The right of workers to form organisations appears frequently in papal encyclicals setting out the Church’s teaching. Over the past 100 years, successive popes have expanded the moral teachings governing the relationships between capital, employers and workers. The stress has been on mutual responsibility and mutual respect. This right to respect is being severely undermined by the latest laws.

So how do we measure the Government’s proposed changes against Catholic Social Teaching? Let me focus on just three issues.

The 90-day trial period: This law strips away the right for a worker to know the reason for any dismissal. The legal right to challenge a blatantly unfair dismissal is to be denied by the Government.

The result is gross disrespect for the dignity of the worker as a person, a financial supporter of the family and a participant in society’s wealth creation. It clashes with the Church’s teaching ‘Workers rights cannot be deemed to be the mere result of economic systems aimed at maximum profits. The thing that must shape the whole economy is respect for workers’ rights within each country and all through the world’s economy.’[2]

Which worker would risk their job by joining a union in the first 90 days? Who would raise a health and safety concern in the first 90 days? The employer can hire a worker on one set of hours of work, then later require the worker to change their working hours without the worker having any power in the first 90 days to be able to discuss any serious inconveniences that the new hours may cause to family commitments or arrangements.

This can place a worker under great stress. In Caritas in Veritate, Benedict XVI comments on the psychological and family insecurity brought about by insecure employment arrangements and unemployment.[3]

The restriction by some employers on the right of workers to have union organisers visit them at work: Even the Government itself has no evidence that union organiser visits to worksites have been the cause of a pattern of complaints by employers. If the union organiser is successful in getting into the work place under the proposed restrictions, workers may again be required to request release from their work station and revert to being paraded to a room near the manager’s office where they can be observed by the management having contact with a union organiser.

Exercising the internationally recognised fundamental human right to free association and the right to form and join unions loses its practical expression if workers are obstructed in exercising this right at their workplace. The Second Vatican Council spelt out its teaching this way: ‘Among their basic rights of the human person must be counted the right of freely founding labour unions. These unions should be truly able to represent the workers and to contribute to the proper arrangement of economic life. Another such right is that of taking part freely in the activity of these unions without risk or reprisal.’[4]

Workers have family responsibilities and may not be free to meet union organisers after work in a cafe or local hall. The feeling of security will be undermined when union organisers will not be seen walking through the workplace available to anyone to raise concerns with.

Medical certificate required for one day’s sickness: Employers can already require medical certificates if they have reasonable grounds to believe that the worker is abusing sick leave. Very few patients can get a medical appointment within 24 hours, and already doctors are complaining that this proposal is unworkable. The Government would be giving a licence to employers to be unreasonable.

The Church states that unions are not just about the rights of workers but that, in search for the common good, they have the ‘duty of acting as representatives working for the proper arrangement of economic life.’[5] This includes a role in the political arena.

Conclusion

The proposed changes to labour laws are in direct conflict with Catholic Social Teaching. It may be that once again the Government is using scare tactics by introducing extreme legislation, backing away just a little, and then claiming to have ‘listened to the people’.

Union members are joining – and inviting family, friends and supporters to join – the nationwide campaign to challenge the Government’s attempts to undermine workers’ job and family security and their rights as workers to organise and join unions.

They have Catholic Social Teaching on their side.

John Maynard is president of the Postal Workers Union of Aotearoa Southern District, a parishioner and kaitiaki of Te Kainga Catholic Marae, and a former member of the Wellington Archdiocesan Justice, Peace and Development Commission.

[1] Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II, 1981, No 6

[2] Ibid. No 17

[3] Caritas et Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI, 2005, No 25

[4] Gaudium et Spes, Second Vatican Council, Document on the Church in the Modern World, No 68

[5] Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church, No 2434

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