Unions push women to front line of wage war
Battle lines are forming on the government’s proposed changes to collective bargaining laws.
Unions have seized on a recommendation of a United Nations committee which monitors discrimination against women as a warning to the government on its changes to employment laws planned for later this year.
It comes a week after Treasury released a regulatory impact statement (prepared by the Department of Labour) on the proposed employment law changes – advising the proposed changes will reduce bargaining and encourage litigation.
The recommendation of the United Nations Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is for independent evaluation of all industrial relations rule changes to ensure they do not negatively affect women’s employment and trade union rights.
National’s election manifesto on employment and industrial relations centred on plans to review the efficiency of the collective bargaining process.
Changes were approved by Cabinet in May and are likely to go before Parliament this year.
Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson has described the changes as “modest”, saying they address the fact that some of the current rules are overly bureaucratic, limit choice and reduce the effectiveness of the bargaining process.
Employers are likely to find plans to scrap the requirement to conclude collective contract negotiations as the most significant change – a provision Labour removed from the Employment Relations Act in 2004.
But Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly says this will weaken collective bargaining.
“This will further reduce pay and conditions for New Zealand workers, especially for low-paid women workers,” Ms Kelly says.
National also plans to remove the requirement that non-union members be employed on the collective agreement terms for their first 30 days of employment.
Ms Kelly says that would see new workers possibly employed on inferior employment conditions undermining employment rights.
“These changes will impact on all workers and they will specifically have a negative impact on women workers, who are more likely to change employment than men and are also likely to be on lower wages and in precarious work.
“Changes to welfare laws forcing solo mums into the workforce with threats of benefits cuts make these law changes doubly unfair. At least these women should have some protection when starting a new job.”
Simpson Grierson partner John Rooney says this appears to be the first time union opposition to proposed employment law changes have been extended to the matter of pay equity.
“It’s a new stance of the union and one we may see and hear more of,” he says.
Business NZ employment policy manager Paul Mackay says the UN report tends to ignore the fact New Zealand is far ahead of most countries in the issues commented on and totally misunderstands our employment relations system.
“The proposed changes to employment law must be seen in a context where women are present in equal numbers to men in the NZ work force,” he says.
“Issues such as pay equity are not functions of the contract a worker is on, but of the work itself.
"All employees are protected by New Zealand’s employment code whether covered by a collective agreement or not and among other things are protected by legislation from discrimination in employment.”
And Mr Mackay says changes to welfare laws are largely unrelated to the changes proposed in employment relations.
“A worker on the dole is not a worker in employment. They are different systems.
"The effort to make those on benefits join the workforce is simply a recognition of the fact that a move into employment offers the opportunity to have a better standard of living than life on a benefit can provide.”
Treasury's regulatory impact statement on government proposals to improve how collective bargaining operates, released last week, found the options were likely to increase choice and reduce compliance costs for some employers overall.
"They will reduce choice for unions and employees and may expose New Zealand to critical international scrutiny over its international labour obligations."
It notes: "changes to the policy settings in the collective bargaining area may culminate in broader impacts on the employment relations framework."
Treasury had stronger views on removal of the requirement to conclude bargaining and the introduction of partial pay reductions for partial strikes.
"These proposals will reduce bargaining where there are poor relationships between employers and unions or low unionisation and encouarage litigation in the short term to test the new boundaries."
Proposed ammendments to collective bargaining rules:
1. Remove the requirement to conclude collective contract negotiations.
The duty of good faith now requires parties to collective bargaining to conclude a collective agreement, unless there is a genuine reason not to do so. It is thought that requirement caused workplace disruption and the deterioration of employer-union relationships.
2. Remove the requirement that non-union members be employed on the collective agreement terms for their first 30 days of employment.
3. Allow employers to opt out of negotiations for a multi-employer collective agreement before negotiations begin, if they decide it is not the right option for them.
4. Apply partial pay reductions for partial strikes or situations of low-level industrial action. Employees can now engage in partial strike action and still receive full pay.