John Key meeting David Cameron last year. Photo: Prime Minister's Office
Straight up attack on employment rights by right-wing Government in NZ
New Zealand’s right wing National Party led by John Key has pushed through changes to legislation which attack employee rights at work. Unions and Labour say that that are a “step backwards” and are “driven by ideology”. The new legislation – trivialised in some parts of the NZ media as ‘tea break’ or ‘smoking break’ laws – squeaked through Parliament by 62 votes to 58 last week.
In reality the new laws take away the legal right to a break at work, and the Government also introduced changes to collective bargaining laws and penalties on workers taking industrial action.
The Employment Relations Amendment Bill, passed with support from the right wing free market party ACT and the United Future Party, faced strong opposition from unions, the Labour Party, the Greens, NZ First and the Maori Party. It is the first piece of legislation to be passed by the new Parliament, elected last month.
The law removes guaranteed meal breaks in return for requiring employers to pay extra money where they are not provided. The legal right to work breaks was written into law in 2008.
Unions and Labour also opposed the weakening of collective bargaining rights and the ability of employers to dock workers’ pay for industrial action such as working to rule. The Act also allows employers to choose not to be part of a collective agreement even where the workforce have voted for one.
Helen Kelly, President of the NZ Council of Trade Unions, said it meant New Zealand now had some of the worst worker protections in the OECD.
“This law attacks workers when they are most vulnerable: when they are negotiating for a new job, when their employment is at risk.”
Labour MP Iain Lees-Galloway said:
“It shows the arrogance of this National Government that the first thing they do after being elected to office for a third term is to undermine workers rights and undermine health and safety at work. This legislation has one purpose – to keep wages down.”
Citing the well rehearsed global neo-liberal mantra that flexible working laws are essential for business growth, the National Party say that: “balanced employment relations legislation is essential for business to grow while ensuring protections for workers are retained. This Bill strikes the right balance to promote business growth while also retaining protections for workers.”
But Robert Reid, General Secretary for the FIRST union (which covers transport, retail, finance, textiles and wood sectors) said the changes were unnecessary and driven by ideology rather than the economy. Reid said the Government had spoken about its wish for wages to increase, but was now blunting the tools that allowed that to happen.
“Collective bargaining is one of the most effective tools workers have. It works. If the government had any interest in lifting wages it would strengthen collective bargaining not attack it.”
Even New Zealand Equal Opportunities Commissioner Jackie Blue joined the attack saying the new laws were:
“a step backward from New Zealand’s compliance with international human rights obligations to protect worker’s rights. New Zealand regularly emerges as one of the least regulated labour markets in the world. It is difficult to understand the justification for even further deregulation.”
She said the ability for employers to walk away from collective bargaining undermined New Zealand’s long standing commitment to the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining.
“The result could be a less collaborative and productive workplace where mutually beneficial agreements can no longer be freely negotiated, invariably impacting on economic development and prosperity.”