|Nargon : More changes to employment law expected|
Trina Snow (executive director, Nargon) discusses the National Government’s second term plans.
Minister of Labour Hon Kate Wilkinson may not have the highest media profile in Cabinet but she is quietly forging a reputation for getting things done, usually with little fuss. In the National-led Government’s first term she successfully introduced, then expanded, the 90-day trial employment period policy, reformed the personal grievance system and increased flexibility in the often frustrating Holidays Act.
That is not to say NARGON has always agreed with her decisions. The Government has chosen to put the minimum wage up every year which we believe is negatively affecting job prospects, particularly for young Kiwis and those with little work experience. However, she is always calm and considered in her decisions.
Following the 2011 election, Minister Wilkinson is embarking on her next tranche of changes to employment law. The National Party employment relations manifesto policy document sets out very clearly the Government’s priorities for the next two and a half years.
The Minister has already announced the new Starting Out Wage. It will be set at 80 percent of the adult minimum wage and three groups of young people will be eligible (16- and 17-year-olds in their first six months of work with a new employer, 18- and 19-year-olds entering the workforce after more than six months on a benefit, and 16- to 19-year-old workers training in a recognised industry course involving at least 40 credits a year). NARGON has welcomed this move as a step in the right direction.
Recently, Minister Wilkinson confirmed that the Government will extend the right to request flexible working arrangements to all employees from their first day on the job. The stated intent is to encourage employers and employees to find the right work-life balance in their workplace without having to go through a formal process.
NARGON will consider the exact details of the legislation when the proposed Bill is released, but in principle the move certainly looks sensible. Many stores and their staff will welcome the increased flexibility which better reflects how the modern retail grocery industry operates.
Way back in October 2009, the Government introduced the Rest and Meal Breaks Amendment Bill which would increase the flexibility around designated rest and meal breaks. However, that Bill has not yet passed and remains mired in the Order Paper. Wellington observers say the Government does not consider this bill to be urgent and it may not pass for a long time. Until it does, the current rules around rest and meal breaks continue to apply.
Both the Starting Out Wage and the flexible working arrangements policy were in the National Party’s manifesto. It is likely that the Minister intends to implement the majority of policies in the document, including a commitment to improve collective bargaining by removing the ‘requirement to conclude’ all collective bargaining. The Government plans to return to the original requirement just to bargain in good faith.
Other changes signalled in this area include removing the requirement that non-union members are employed under a collective agreement for their first 30 days, allowing employers to opt out of negotiations, and applying partial pay reductions for partial strikes or situations of low-level industrial action. There will also be a review of constructive dismissals and how the concept can be used inappropriately in employment disputes.
National argues it is re-balancing and improving the labour relations framework. The policy states they “want to give businesses the confidence to take on new staff, help resolve workplace disputes more quickly and provide more choices”, both for employers and employees. It also intends to “protect the rights of employees while encouraging businesses to grow the New Zealand economy”.
Overall, National’s changes in employment relations have been largely positive. Supermarkets are significant employers, particularly of young people and those new to the workforce, and many of the reforms have made doing business easier while protecting the rights of staff. NARGON will continue to work constructively with the National-led Government on behalf of our members to further improve New Zealand’s employment law framework.