New employment laws 'common sense'

BusinessNZ has dismissed claims by one of New Zealand's largest unions that new employment laws will drive down wages and reduce workers' bargaining power.

Yesterday a law change bringing in workplace reforms, including the removal of the statutory right to meal and tea breaks, passed its final hurdle in Parliament.

The Employment Relations Amendment Bill was the first law change completed by Prime Minister John Key's third-term government.

Among its key changes, the law will allow employers to walk away from negotiating a collective agreement, although they will first have to act in good faith.

That requirement would not be met if they simply refused to agree because they were opposed in principle.

Under changes to the right to meal and tea breaks, an employer would only have to provide "reasonable compensatory measures where an employee could not reasonably be provided with breaks". That could be met by giving equivalent time off work.

Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) national secretary Bill Newson said every worker would be affected by the new laws and should join a union if they wanted to maintain and increase their wages and work conditions.

The Bill undermined collective bargaining, driving down wages and work conditions and makes it harder for workers to challenge unfair dismissals, he said.

"Union members on collective agreements get rest breaks, regular pay rises, and support in employment issues," Newson said.

But BusinessNZ employment relations policy manager Paul Mackay said the changes were not a directional shift in employment law and would have little impact on workers.

"None are what we could call fundamental," Mackay said.

"The ability to initiate collective bargaining is the same as it's always been."

Only two members in a workplace were needed to initiate collective bargaining and it still had to take place under good faith, he said.

The Bill was "common sense" legislation and would not impact collective bargaining power "one iota", he said.

"They are simply about tuning the elegancy and efficiency of some of the provisions that are already there."

The Bill states workers must have breaks and health and safety laws reinforced this, he said.

Breaks should still be taken, it was only when they were taken that would change, he said.

Law firm Chapman Tripp said the law would bring new flexibility to the labour market and reduce unions' ability to organise and to recruit.

Statistics New Zealand figures show about 27 per cent of the workforce was unionised and only 24 per cent were covered by collective agreements, the majority of which were in the public sector.

National MPs have argued the law would not override rules governing hours of work in jobs such as passenger transport. Nor would it negate the general duty on employers under health and safety laws.

Equal Opportunities Commissioner Jackie Blue said the new employment law was a step backwards and could put vulnerable workers at risk.

The former National MP also questioned why New Zealand needed more deregulation when it already had one of the least regulated labour markets in the world.

Among its other provisions, the Bill will:

* extend the right to request flexible working arrangements to all workers, not just those who have to care for someone.

* remove the 30 day rule that forces employers to offer the terms and conditions of an existing collective agreement to a new employee who is not in a union.

* allow employers to opt out of multi-employer collective bargaining.

* change the rule protecting the jobs of  ''vulnerable workers'' in industries such as catering, cleaning and laundry services where their employer loses a contract to a rival bidder. Under the new clause, employers with fewer than 20 workers will be exempt.

* allow employers to dock the pay, at a default rate of 10 per cent, of any worker undertaking a ''partial strike''. These could include working to rule, go slows or breaking some aspect of the employment agreement, such as refusing to wear a uniform.