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Workplace relations minister to get greater power over vulnerable worker list

Monday 10th September 2018

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Parliament's education and workforce select committee heeded union submissions on the first tranche of an employment law overhaul which would let the workplace relations minister add new groups to the list of vulnerable employees. 

The committee, chaired by National MP Parmjeet Parmar, reported back to Parliament on the Employment Relations Amendment Bill last week with several amendments, including a new ministerial power to add, remove or amend the list of workers protected by restructuring provisions.

The minister would need to have received a request from employees seeking a change with evidence that the employees met the protected category criteria. A departmental report would need to assess the request, which the minister would have to provide to employers, employees and their representatives, though they would be able to withhold information under the Official Information Act. 

The protection was set up in 2006 to cover workers with little bargaining power in sectors where restructuring is common and often undermines terms and conditions. It essentially preserves those employment conditions in an ownership change or provides a forum to negotiate redundancy. The previous administration granted an exemption for small businesses, which will be dropped in the legislation as it stands. 

During the bill's first reading, Workplace Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said the thrust of the legislation was to "provide greater protection to workers, especially vulnerable workers, and to strengthen the role of collective bargaining in the workplace to ensure fair wages and conditions". He also name-checked the specific provision as providing a "critical protection for vulnerable workers, such as cleaners and caterers". 

In its written submission, the Council of Trade Unions welcomed the removal of the exemption for small and medium-sized businesses from the vulnerable worker restructuring protection and lobbied for the reinstatement of the ability to amend the list. 

"Transfer protections should be extended to other problematic industries including security, care workers, bus drivers, pizza deliverers, waste and recycling workers and workers in other council-controlled services," it said. 

Business New Zealand opposed the removal of the exemption in its written submission, and today said the bill as reported back remains "harmful and oppressive". The business lobby group said it's considering pursuing a claim to the International Labour Organisation or International Court of Justice on parts of the bill it says are "contrary to international law".

The National Party also issued a minority report, saying it opposed the "ideological basis" of the bill and specific changes within it that would "destabilise the New Zealand industrial relations landscape". The National minority said the legislation reinforced the "political, historic, and financial relationships between the trade union movement and the New Zealand Labour Party" and will lead to adversarial industrial activity that will "ultimately be bad for both employees and employers". 

Other changes recommended by the committee include entitling union delegates to spend reasonable paid time undertaking union activities as if they're performing normal duties. New obligations will also be created for employers to share information with unions about new staff, and to be more explicit about wage and salary rates in collective agreements. 

The bill will include exemptions for prescribed rest breaks for employers engaged in protecting New Zealand's national security and recommends greater clarity in calculating how to compensate staff who miss those breaks. It will also let employers and workers negotiate more favourable terms on an individual basis than those in a collective, even during the 30-day period when non-union members are given the same terms and conditions as if they were on a collective deal. 

(BusinessDesk)

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