The Hobbit saga: Govt 'sold out workers' rights'

A union boss has accused the Government of selling out New Zealand workers' rights at the behest of United States entertainment giant Warner Bros.

New Zealanders ought to be deeply concerned at the Government's willingness to change labour laws to suit the company over the deal to film The Hobbit, said Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) national secretary Andrew Little.

Documents released under the Official Information Act to Radio New Zealand show the Government was prepared to change the law on the status of employment agreements in the film industry in the face of a threat to make The Hobbit movie overseas.

The papers also reveal that the threat of a boycott by actors, which was called off by the time Warner Bros executives arrived in New Zealand, was not an issue but that a 2005 Supreme Court decision and decades old law was.

"It is simply staggering that a New Zealand government should accede to a rushed law change that deprives workers of a right they've had for decades just because an overseas mega-corporate and a local film director ask for it," Mr Little said.

"The Government's job is to act in the best interests of all New Zealanders, not the mighty and the powerful, and certainly not for overseas mega-corporates."

An email was sent by movie director Sir Peter Jackson to the office of Economic Development Minister Gerry Brownlee, who was involved in the negotiations with Warner Bros.

It said there was no connection between Actors' Equity union action against The Hobbit movies and choice of location, which contradicted government statements at the time - which were that Warner Bros was concerned about strife caused by the blacklisting of the movies because of a row over collective pay conditions.

In his email Jackson said: "What Warners requires for The Hobbit is the certainty of a stable employment environment and the ability to conduct its business in such a way that it feels that its $500 million investment is as secure as possible.

"Unfortunately Warners have become very concerned at the grey areas in our employment laws. The situation hasn't been helped by the fact that they spent a lot of money fighting the Bryson case - unsuccessfully - in the New Zealand courts."

The Bryson case involved former Weta Workshop model maker James Bryson successfully arguing that he was an employee, not a contractor.

Mr Little said changing New Zealand's labour laws at the behest of an overseas corporation and one of the most powerful men in New Zealand was a disgrace.

"By doing so the Government legislated to remove the right of the courts to look behind the form of an employment agreement in order to check the true nature of the agreement, which is something that has been crucial to a fair balance in employment law around the world for many, many decades," he said.

Labour MP Trevor Mallard said unions involved in the Hobbit dispute were unfairly smeared.

"The lies that were told were very damaging to the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) and (its president) Helen Kelly's credibility," Mr Mallard told NZPA.

"I just think it's incredibly sad that that sort of damage can be done by a couple of politicians not telling the truth."

The Government secured the movies in October by an urgent amendment to employment law which prevented independent contractors from claiming entitlements as employees, as well as an agreement to increase the tax concession for big screen productions.

A spokesman for Mr Brownlee said the Government was comfortable with its action and would not be commenting further.

NZPA