Secret changes to labour rules

DANYA LEVY
Last updated 08:36 14/05/2012
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Kate Wilkinson
LABOUR MINISTER: Kate Wilkinson.

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Prime Minister John Key says changes to industrial relations laws being considered by the Government are minor and won't affect the vast bulk of New Zealanders.

Fairfax Media has revealed the Government intends to go further with its changes to labour laws than outlined in National's election policy.

In a new move, Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson wants employers to be able to set the agenda for collective contract negotiations, raising concerns they will be able to walk away from bargaining if unions reject unreasonable demands.

The Government's concerned there is a perception that the current 20-day head start unions are given to launch negotiations creates an imbalance in bargaining.

But Labour's industrial relations spokeswoman Darien Fenton said it was important unions began the process because it set the terms for negotiation and who was covered.

"The first thing unions will have to deal with is an initiation notice from an employer which perhaps excludes half of their members. That's going to create far more disputes than there are already."

Key this morning refused to comment on the details of the changes, saying Cabinet had not yet had an opportunity to discuss them.

"We have had some early discussions but no decisions have been made yet," he told Newstalk ZB.

The Government wanted to make sure New Zealand had a "flexible" labour market, he said.

"If you have a look at our track record on employment relations, we've been at the modest end in terms of adjustments. We haven't gone out there and done hugely radical things.

"The most arguably controversial (change) has been the 90-day probational period but that's been very well received and highly successful."

Changes signalled in National's election policy also to be considered by Cabinet include that: employers will not have to conclude collective bargaining; non-union employees will no longer have to be employed on a collective contract for the first 30 days of their employment; employers will be able to opt out of multi-employer bargaining; and workers will be able to ask for flexible work arrangements without having to wait until they have been employed for six months.

The Government also wants employers to be able to deduct the wages of workers who undertake partial strikes and the papers show new provisions which would allow them to be paid at less than the minimum wage.

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Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly said the changes would affect all workers as they would drive down wages.

There was no need for them as labour laws were working well and strike action was declining.

However, Business New Zealand chief executive Phil O'Reilly said some employers faced endless bargaining which made businesses less productive.

Fenton said if the Ports of Auckland wharfies and Affco meat workers would have been replaced with lower-paid contractors if the changes had been in place.

BY THE NUMBERS

- 13 per cent of the total workforce was employed on a collective agreement last year, made up of:

- 9 per cent of the private sector, or 120,600 workers.

- 58 per cent of the public sector, or 177,800 workers.

- Over the past 20 years strike action has been declining.

- 17 work stoppages were held in 2010, including -

- 5 partial strikes.

- Fairfax Media

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