Employment Relations Amendment Bill a provocation of organised labour


By Vita Bryant (Fightback Poneke/Wellington).

As National heads into its third term of Government, almost foremost on its legislative agenda will be the implementation of the Employment Relations Amendment Bill, which has already passed its second reading.

This Bill is no more than a thinly-veiled attack on workers, unions and minimum labour standards, and contains a number of provisions that significantly undermine the employment security of the most vulnerable members of our workforce.

The first of these is the removal of an employer’s obligation to conclude collective bargaining in good faith unless there is a genuine reason not to, instead allowing employers to declare that bargaining has reached a “stalemate” and to seek a determination from the Employment Relations Authority that the bargaining has been concluded. Even Peter Dunne, United Future MP and National Party sycophant, raised concerns that such a removal will allow employers to “go through the motions” of collective bargaining without any real intention to form an agreement. This provision discourages the formation of new collective agreements, and has a very real potential to allow employers to claw back the hard won gains fought for by unions through collective bargaining.

Secondly, the Bill removes the provision that new employees are covered by any collective agreement already negotiated for their work for the first 30 days of their employment, a provision expressly designed to give new employees fewer rights than contained in the existing collective agreement, as well as making it more difficult for new employees to understand what is being offered by that collective agreement. Over time, a situation where new employees accept lesser conditions and wages than unionised employees performing the same work incentivises employers to a “race to the bottom” in terms of the wages and conditions offered to each new employee.

Furthermore, the amendments allow employers to opt-out of multi-employer collective agreements where conditions and standards are uniform across workforces (for example DHBs or franchises), removes employees’ rights to scheduled rest and meal breaks, and imposes restrictions on the right to strike, including allowing employers the ability to deduct pay for even small industrial actions. Finally, the Bill removes protections for vulnerable workers in workplaces where the employer frequently changes hands.

Contrary to the National Party’s view that the amendments merely provide ‘clarification’ and extend flexibility, the changes are in fact an effort to claw back workers’ few remaining rights. Both the Human Rights Commission Te Kahui Tika Tangata and the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions Te Kauae Kaimahi have submitted that the Bill contravenes New Zealand’s international obligations to protect minimum employment standards and promote collective bargaining, putting us in a similarly embarrassing situation as when we became an international laughing stock with the passing of the Employment Contracts Act 1991.

Such a blatant disregard for international law highlights the true agenda of the recently re-elected National Party Government – union busting and the unapologetic erosion of our most basic labour rights. At a time when collective agreement coverage is at an all-time low (just 17.3% from 2005-2010), it is not merely scare-mongering to say that our Government wants to kill collective bargaining once and for all.

Pleading or appealing to National’s conscience will not stop these attacks. The power of unions and communities lies in taking collective action. Strikes hit union-busting governments and employers the hardest, and wider community mobilisation can also support unions.

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