Business hopes for new minister of labour

Simon Bridges: Aware of the challenges

The labour portfolio has been kept with the legal profession with the appointment of new minister Simon Bridges this week.

The former Crown prosecutor and MP for Tauranga was promoted from outside cabinet in Prime Minister John Key’s reshuffle to also be minister of energy and resources.

He replaces Kate Wilkinson, also an ex-lawyer, who stepped down from the labour portfolio in the wake of the Pike River Commission of Inquiry report last year.

While not the high-profile portfolio it was in the days when wages awards and strike settlements were hammered out over late-night meetings in the Beehive, labour market rules are still one of the largest points of difference in politics.

And Mr Bridges takes up the portfolio as the government is poised to implement pre-election employment policies expected to cheer employers.

These include changes to the collective bargaining regime, "vulnerable worker" provisions in the Employment Relations Act, rules around flexible working arrangements and widespread changes in health and safety legislation.

Read more about legislative activity expected in the employment space this year here.

Business, frustrated with the pace of the promised labour market reform, will hope changes will not be delayed further as Mr Bridges gets his feet under the desk.

Early challenges in the portfolio include extensive reform of the health and safety regime, and more moderate reforms of labour law. 

Mr Bridges told NBR ONLINE he was looking forward to bringing new thinking to the job.

"I had expressed an interest in Labour and, as a lawyer, I believe I bring a level of professional experience and expertise to the role that will help. 

"I am aware of the challenges ahead, especially in employment law and health and safety. The area is one with its own unique complexities as well as opportunities.

"I plan to live up to the confidence the prime minister has placed in me."

'Intelligent' Bridges welcomed by industry

Mr Bridge’s strong legal background is considered to be a plus as he steps up to the labour portfolio.

He was a former District and High Court Crown prosecutor who has just completed his first year as a minister as associate minister for climate change issues.

Business New Zealand employment relations manager Paul Mackay says Mr Bridges’ legal background will be useful.

“His experience as a litigator will assist in managing the sometimes diverse views of the various participants in the labour market. 

“Overall, I think we can expect constructive dialogue with him in his new role."

Employment lawyers spoken to by NBR ONLINE say Mr Bridges is a good performer and they hope he will bring fresh energy to the role.

“It seems he is ambitious and keen to try and advance, so from that perspective we look forward to seeing some energy and drive,” John Rooney from Simpson Grierson says.

Minter Ellison Rudd Watts partner Jennifer Mills says she is pleased to see the portfolio go to someone with a good legal background

“In our experience, Simon is intelligent, hard-working and professional, which can only bode well for the portfolio.”

The only negative would be potential delays to legislative changes previously approved by cabinet as Mr Bridges reviews the rationale behind them, Ms Mills says.

Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly says she hopes Mr Bridges will keep the momentum going on implementing the outcomes of the Pike River Report.

Other challenges in the labour portfolio – which Ms Kelly says previous ministers in this government have failed to satisfactorily address – include health and safety, lifting the minimum wage, and addressing the major problem of precarious work with so many on casual, contracting or short-term employment arrangements.

Hoping for stronger approach

Business will be hoping the incoming minister takes a stronger approach to the task.

In October, Ms Wilkinson’s long-awaited tweaks to Part 6A of the Employment Relations Act, concerning “vulnerable worker” provisions, were seen as a gutless move by the government and having taken far too long to emerge from the minister's office.

Businesses with fewer than 20 staff were made exempt from legal obligations to take on any existing staff or meet their entitlements if they are taking over a business or service contract.

But larger businesses still want full repeal of the vulnerable workers provision found in Part 6A (continuity of employment) of the Employment Relations Act,

Another area where Ms Wilkinson courted criticism last year relates to appointments to the Employment Relations Authority.

Before she stepped down from the portfolio, she was also under pressure to explain turnover at the ERA at a time when the employment watchdog was seen by employers and employees to be doing a reasonable job.

Heads were scratched as non-specialists were appointed to replace four well-respected members with sound employment law and industrial relations backgrounds.

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