Backlash follows wage law change

Jeff Sissons
Jeff Sissons
The Government and dairy farmers are facing a backlash from trade unions after Labour Minister Simon Bridges yesterday announced changes which include a fortnightly minimum wage rate.

The Government's changes to the Minimum Wage Order related to a recent court ruling which found a week was the longest period which salaried workers could be assessed for compliance with the Minimum Wage Act.

''The ruling does not adequately reflect current work practices, such as salaried employees on fortnightly rosters,'' he said.

Council of Trade Unions general counsel Jeff Sissons said the change was an example of poor policy making on the hoof.

''The Government is succumbing to pressure from dairy farmers to change a system that has worked well since the 1890s.

It will benefit some of the worst employers in the country and could result in pay reductions for thousands of workers near the minimum wage,'' he said.

A move to fortnightly calculations allowed an employer to offset payments for work in one week against payments due to the worker in the following week.

For example, the weekly minimum wage was $570 per week, and the new fortnightly rate would be $1140.

A worker who earned $670 in one week - through overtime, shift rates and other payments - and $470 in the next week would, under current law, be able to claim up to $570 in the second week.

Under the new law, the employer would be able to count the additional payments in the first week.

Mr Sissons said the changes made it more attractive for employers to make their workers undertake long hours.

Along with proposed changes to remove guaranteed rest and meal breaks, the longer hours would lead to greater fatigue and more accidents.

The CTU understood the amendment came as a direct result of lobbying by dairy farmers who were pushing for a loosening of employment laws following Ministry of Business Employment and Innovation inspections finding nearly three-quarters of dairy farms inspected breached their workers' ''basic employment rights'', he said.

''This change sends a message to employers they should lobby their way out of basic obligations rather than observe them. The Government should be encouraging farmers to improve their workers' pay and conditions, not worsen them.''

Service and Food Workers Union national secretary John Ryall said Mr Bridges had ignored the concerns of unions and low-income workers in amending the Minimum Wage Order to allow ''averaging'' of the minimum wage.

Under the averaging regime, low-income workers would need to be issued with calculators every fortnight to find out whether they were being paid above or below the minimum wage.

''The truth is the change is being pushed through by the minister to help his National Party dairy farmer mates who have been exploiting their farm labourers by regularly paying them below the minimum wage,'' Mr Ryall said.

However, Mr Bridges said by including a fortnightly minimum wage rate, employees would still be paid for every hour they worked and the expectation was employers must continue to keep an accurate record of hours worked and wages paid.

Most employers and employees would be unaffected by the new order. It affected primarily minimum wage earners who were paid salaries.

At a glance
- Minimum wage earners who are paid salaries will have their pay averaged over two weeks.
- Government says the change would more adequately reflect current work practices.
- Trade unions say dairy farm workers are likely to be exploited by working longer hours with fewer breaks.

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