NZ Workers’ Rights Eroded

The recently re-elected National Government highlighted employment law changes as one of its key priorities in its first 100 days in Government. Proposed changes have already been passed and detrimentally affect collective agreements, the 90 day trial period, strike action, and rest and meal breaks. It was hugely ironic that these changes were introduced on the day before Labour Weekend when government MPs enjoyed a public holiday given to celebrate labour law gains from 100 years ago. Then, after enjoying the long weekend, they passed them into law a week later. The irony surely was lost on the MPs voting in the latest restrictive laws.

The government have dressed up these changes with spin saying the changes are a mere modest tinkering or tidying of employment law to allow more flexibility for employers and employees in the workplace.

They are no such thing. They are, in fact, a full frontal attack on workers’ rights and are designed to drive down wages.

So what are some of the changes?

  • The Government is winding back the clock to the position where there will once again be no duty of good faith by employers to conclude bargaining for a Collective Agreement.
  • Employers will also be able to opt out of multi‑employer bargaining.
  • There will now be no requirement for a new employee to be automatically employed under the Collective Agreement for the first 30 days.
  • These drastic changes will strengthen an employer’s hand to press for changes within a Collective Agreement, or even pressure workers to accept individual agreements.
  • Union officials must also get the consent of the employer to enter a workplace. Employers will also be allowed to directly talk to union members during bargaining.
  • There will now be no minimum provision in law for rest and meal breaks.
  • A 2012 Cabinet paper pointed out that the repeal of the 30 day rule for new workers will allow employers to offer Individual Agreements with terms and conditions that are less than those in the Collective Agreements.

This is a return to the 1990’s when employers effectively barred meaningful access to members, or used intimidatory tactics to force workers to accept the employers’ position. Written notification of any proposed strike will need to be given and employers can also reduce pay during partial strikes. That makes strikes a less powerful industrial weapon when employees are being victimised.

Employers will be able to request changes to their workplace arrangements. This will mean workers will find themselves (and their hours of work) at the beck and call of employers at a moment’s notice, and face an increasing threat of entering unstable work situations. Those especially at risk will be low paid or low skilled workers.

The 90 day trial period for new workers will remain in place. Workers have no right to appeal against unfair dismissal if fired within 90 days. Frighteningly, 2013 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.

The new law has changed the vulnerable worker provision in Part 6A of the Employment Relations Act. Up until now, the law allowed vulnerable workers, such as cleaners, to stay on the same wages and conditions at their workplace even if there is a change of owner of their cleaning contract firm. Those classed as small and medium sized businesses which employ less than 20 workers will be excluded under the new law.

Church Teaching – The Rights of Workers

The Catholic Church has a long tradition of social teachings regarding the rights of workers both 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.

For more than 100 years, Catholic Social Teaching has reflected on relationships in the workplace – rights, responsibilities, justice. It has stressed the importance of good relations, and of there being a balance of power between employers and employees. But in New Zealand these teachings are being largely ignored. National-led governments, including this recently re-elected one, have consistently favoured the rights of capital and employers over workers, leading to a huge and growing imbalance within the workforce and within the economy. The result has accelerated the growing gap between those with much and those living either in poverty or close to the poverty line.

Probably the most significant workers’ encyclical in modern times was Pope John Paul II’s On Human Work published in 1981. This 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’. (Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II, 1981, No 6) In other words, Church teaching 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.

It is through meaningful work that people can find purpose in life and exercise their creative abilities. Work also continues to the service of society by providing essential components of meaningful living. Such works include employment in trades like carpentry and plumbing, work in hospitals doing surgery, nursing, cleaning and cooking, work in professional areas such as law and accounting, in universities and research centres, work on farms and orchards, in the business sector and in shops selling and buying, in essential work on road construction and repair, house building and maintenance of infrastructure already in place like sewage and water supplies. These are only a sample of the inter-dependent jobs that are required in any civilised society. They are all essential services and need adequate remuneration. All those various sectors of work need each other. Collectively, they make up the whole workforce. Church social teaching is that no one sector is more important than the other. All sectors need adequate remuneration to show they are valued and to enable them to provide for their families.

Structured Imbalance

Currently, our corporate capitalist system has structured the financial system to say in effect that some sectors are more important than others. Hence the disparity in wages and incomes. The greedier sectors have grabbed a far greater slice of the economic cake than they need or deserve. In essence this is inherently unjust and constitutes gross theft. It produces a growing gap between the sectors. It structures inequality into the wage and income system. It is a direct cause for the rise of poverty among the poor and disadvantaged and even working families.

The divisive tactics of the recent labour law changes will lead to a widening gap between workers in essential services and a direct attack on the safety nets around employment as provided by unions. The right of workers to form organisations appears frequently in papal encyclicals setting out the Church’s teaching. 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. Pope Francis is especially strong in his teachings on these matters. (Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, 2013)

This right to respect is being severely undermined by these latest labour law changes. The notion of the common good is simply ignored. More power is being handed to employers, who have been given a virtual blank cheque to do what they will with an employee under certain conditions. The notion of mutual responsibility and mutual respect is totally undermined.

The passage of these laws by the National-led government has provided another sad day for the vast majority of working New Zealanders.

Dion Martin

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