Pretty Legal Employment Relations


Steven Joyce's unfortunate comment (ridiculed by television host John Oliver) actually sums up the way our National Government operates. As long as it's "pretty legal" it's "worth a crack".

This Government has always operated with a broken moral compass and the revelation that the GCSB has been using mass surveillance to spy on our Pacific neighbours is just the latest example. Time and time again legislation has been passed (often under urgency) to pave the way for even greater erosions of human rights, and to limit reasonable protections for ordinary people. The United Nations has made 155 recommendations to our Government to address human rights and to protect our most vulnerable. The fact that the number of recommendations has increased by 65 since 2009 passed largely without notice.

The level of moral corruption in our Government has possibly been too much for some. Simon Power was widely liked across all parties for the transparent and collegial way he worked and his resignation followed that of Katherine Rich who had a similar reputation. Power was seen by some as a potential leader of the Party and his stepping down seemed unusual when at the cusp of greater things. I believe his fair mindedness was out of kilter to the general culture within the National Caucus and Key's leadership style. He left at a time when Jason Eade was most active in leading the Prime Minister's dark ops division from his office.

Power's replacement for the Justice portfolio was Judith Collins and she immediately set about dismantling much of the good work he had done. Collins approach to the role was more in keeping with the caucus culture and she quickly set to work using her powers for her own interests and that of the Party. Her rejection of the Electoral Commission's recommendations to improve MMP was disgraceful as was her treatment of Justice Binnie. Collins operated in a way that could be judged as pretty legal, but I can't imagine this occurring under Power.

One of the most recent erosions of basic rights has been through the Employment Relations Amendment Bill, which comes into force today. When there are so many examples of employers using their superior power to disadvantage their workers it seems nonsensical to provide them with even more opportunities to do so. When Work Relations Minister Michael Woodhouse was confronted with the reality of zero hour contracts his responses displayed a huge ignorance of his portfolio and what many workers are up against. His brushing aside of concerns by claiming that the "Government can't legislate for good employer practice" was appalling and Helen Kelly was quite right in pointing out that it was actually his role. Instead of protecting workers from the worst of employers, National has set up a situation that will probably advantage them.

Many employers with similar moral constraints to the Government will push the new legislation to its legal limits:
  • It will now be pretty legal to deny tea breaks to employees. If a new employee was asked "are you all right with not having a tea break?" you can imagine the response and the employer can easily state that they had come to an amicable agreement.
  • It is now pretty legal for an employer to opt out of collective bargaining if they don't like where negotiations are heading. In the past employers could be legally constrained by the 'good faith' clause, but that has now been effectively removed.
  • It's now pretty legal to not pay new nonunion employees less than an existing collective agreement when it was mandatory for the first 30 days. 
  • The original legislation protected the jobs of vulnerable workers in the catering, cleaning and laundry services when contracts changed to a rival bidder. This is no longer an expectation and it will now be pretty legal for a successful bidder to have them all sacked and possible re-employed on lower pay. 
  • The extension of flexible work arrangements was promoted as a positive for workers struggling to meet the demands of childcare, but it goes two ways. Flexibility of work hours is another pretty legal way of having workers on tap at times most suitable for the employer and will mean even more insecurity of hours.
  • If employees take legal 'partial strike' action against an employer (like refusing to wear a uniform while at work) it will be pretty legal for the employer to deduct pay even if there was no financial disadvantage to them through the action. 
The New Zealand workforce is actually not a lazy one (95% of us are employed) and a large percentage work longer hours than most OECD countries, but we are now considered to be a low wage economy. Casualisation of the workforce has increased to the extent that while many have been removed from the unemployment statistics a large percentage of workers are wanting more hours to be truly financially secure. According to Roy Morgan last year almost 300,000 workers were wanting more work. 

It is an employers' market, they now have a large casual workforce on tap whenever they want and have employment legislation that enables them to dictate terms even more than before...and it's all pretty legal. 


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