Your boss could put a stop to quick smoko breaks

Last updated 05:00 03/09/2012

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Leaving your desk to stretch your legs, or popping out for a bite of lunch, could soon be outlawed, critics of a Government bill say.

Legislation under consideration would mean workers could be required to keep up their work duties or remain in the workplace during their paid and unpaid breaks, if their boss asks.

Opponents say the Employment Relations Amendment Bill, first introduced in 2009 and still before Parliament, is a knee-jerk reaction to a few cases in which employees work alone, and that these few cases are greatly outweighed by the many whose rights could be taken away.

Council of Trade Unions policy analyst Eileen Brown said adequate breaks were a basic employment right, and essential for the health and safety of workers. "A break is a break - there should be quite clear time off for a break. We don't agree that having a break means you are still available to work."

Labour industrial relations spokeswoman Darien Fenton said she believed people could not be made to work for nothing - which was what the bill would amount to. Workers had a fundamental right to breaks, no matter what industry they were in, and even if they were working alone.

She had heard of shop assistants working alone having to close their stores to use a mall bathroom because their stores lacked facilities - and then being disciplined by their bosses for it.

The legislation, which is yet to have its second reading, stipulates that conditions on breaks must be reasonable, and let employers and employees negotiate those conditions. But Ms Brown said those provisos would be no protection.

In most industries, employers had far greater powers than workers, who would have to put up with the conditions if they wanted to keep their jobs.

Business NZ chief executive Phil O'Reilly said the bill would restore the give-and-take that existed between employers and workers before the Labour Government regulated rest breaks in 2008.

The safeguards in the law - that it must be a reasonable request to work through a break - would ensure workers were not exploited.

Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson said the bill made it clear that, if an employer asked a worker to keep up their work duties, it had to be a reasonable request - and it had to be necessary to the work, or agreed to by both the employer and the employee.

"This is also a high threshold that appropriately recognises that imposing conditions on breaks should be exercised sparingly, particularly given that meal breaks may be unpaid."

Green Party spokeswoman Denise Roche said forcing people to work through breaks was a breach of human rights.

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- The Dominion Post

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