ERA amendments – 'union bashing' vs 'codifying common sense'

Business groups broadly support the changes; the usual suspects, not so much.

The National-led government’s determination to quickly pass the Employment Relations Amendment Bill now it has sufficient numbers in the House has been greeted with a mix of dismay and suspicion from some quarters and guarded enthusiasm from others.

National had intended to pass the bill before September’s election but found itself without the one-vote majority to do so following the resignation of former Act MP John Banks.

Predictably enough, unions aren’t in favour of the bill – Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union head Bill Newson, for example, calls it another example of “union bashing.”

Neither are Labour – Sue Moroney equates it to an attack on workers, while Andrew Little says it’s “cynical that on the eve of Labour Weekend, the National Government is pushing through legislation that takes away the statutory right to tea and meal breaks, along with collective bargaining protections.”

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei, meanwhile, says the bill is designed to weaken the rights of workers.

As one would expect, business groups take a much more positive view of the legislation – although their support isn’t unconditional.

“Overall, we basically endorse the intent and the outcomes that are being sought,” says Paul Mackay, Business New Zealand’s employment relations policy manager, “but we will reserve judgement on some things in terms of how effective the actual mechanism is – and of course we’ll point out any areas that might be improved in the future.”

Mr Mackay sees the proposed amendments as being geared to “improving upon some of the more process-based outcomes” as well as “codifying common sense – which isn’t what you’d regard as a fundamental necessity but won’t do any harm.”

He believes the fears expressed by the bill’s opponents are based on misinterpretations of the amendments.

“If you look carefully at the much criticised issue of meal breaks, for example, some have chosen to interpret it as ‘you’ve lost your meal breaks’,” Mr Mackay says, “whereas I think the legal construction would have it that you’re supposed to have your breaks but if you can’t have them at the normally designated time, then work out when you can have them or agree on some sort of compensatory measures.”

Still, Business NZ will be watching carefully how the legislation works in practice.

One aspect Mr Mackay says the organisation “still has an open mind on as to whether the way the bill addresses that issue will be as effective as you might think” is speeding up the Employment Relations Authority’s decision-making process.

“I don’t think anybody will complain about the idea of having a faster turnaround," he says. "But if you push someone to make a decision, they may not necessarily make a good one.

"So that’s a risk. It's not a prediction of doom, it is simply saying be careful what you ask for sometimes – although overall the idea behind it is a good one.”

Still, says Mr Mackay, on balance “it’s better to try and do something than sit around trying to endlessly refine it.”

Employers and Manufacturers Association communications manager Gilbert Peterson echoes that sentiment.

“There is always room for improvement but more important in this instance is that this bill is enacted,” he says. “We’re very keen that the legislation is passed in the current calendar year, so the precedence it’s been given is very welcome.”

Once the employment relations amendments are in place, Mr Peterson says the EMA will switch its focus to the Health and Safety Reform Bill.

“That’s going to have big impacts in many workplaces and where our priorities will lie,” he says.

“We accept the need for more regulation, we’re very much onside with what we understand are the principles of the new law, but there’s a whole bunch of detail in the new regulations that our experts here are working through with officials,” Mr Peterson says.

“We’re keen that the law is as practical and workplace friendly as it can be, so that it’s as effective as it can be.”

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