Anger over law changes

MATHEW GROCOTT
Last updated 09:00 05/10/2013

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Manawatu workers have launched a scathing assault on the Government's planned changes to employment laws, telling a parliamentary select committee lives will be lost if they go ahead.

In a rare, possibly unprecedented move, the Transport and Industrial Relations Select Committee sat in Palmerston North yesterday after it received a flood of submissions on the proposed law changes from people in the city.

Only Auckland and Wellington had more people commenting on the Government's planned changes to the Employment Relations Act.

More than 20 people gave oral submissions to the select committee yesterday, with almost every element of the proposed changes to the act coming in for criticism.

Speaker after speaker told the five member panel, including Palmerston North MP Iain Lees-Galloway, the changes were unfair, unjust and would exploit vulnerable workers.

Among changes to the bill are the ability for employers to walk away from collective bargaining, the removal of the requirement for new workers to be employed on the collective agreement for their first 30 days, and the ability for employers to dock the pay of staff on partial strikes.

"I think we own our labour and we have the right to negotiate what our labour is worth," community support worker Garry Buckman said. "The amendments take away this basic right."

A common cause for complaint was a provision that means employers can decide not to give staff meal or rest breaks, in exchange for compensation.

"Giving the nature of our work, being fatigued can cost me or a member of my team [their] life," Corrections officer Debbie Bright told the committee.

There could also be ramifications for the community, the Public Service Association delegate said, for example if she was to miss signs a child was at risk because she was tired.

Aged care worker Anna-Sophia Calman said she was concerned about the effect on residents.

"If we don't have our meal breaks, we're going to be blonked, we're going to do the wrong thing," she said.

Palmerston North Hospital orderly Dean Rasell said staff worked hard and needed breaks to rest, eat and rehydrate to ensure they were not putting patients at risk.

Many of the speakers said they had good relationships with their employers and were not saying they would definitely lose meal breaks.

However they knew there were less responsible employers who would use the law to take advantage of workers in the interest of profits.

When Labour Minister Simon Bridges introduced the bill to Parliament in June, he said it would continue the Government's "strong, unrelenting focus on reducing compliance costs and unnecessarily burdensome regulation".

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But the bill has sparked fierce opposition around the country from unions, and opposition in Manawatu has been particularly vocal.

Select committee meetings in Palmerston North are rare, if indeed there has ever been one before. Mr Lees-Galloway said he was unaware of a hearing held in the city before.

- Manawatu Standard

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