Labour sweetens employment reform Bill

Strikes are ongoing but concessions have been made over contentious legislative labour law reforms; pictured, striking primary school teachers in Dunedin's Octagon a fortnight ago. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
Strikes are ongoing but concessions have been made over contentious legislative labour law reforms; pictured, striking primary school teachers in Dunedin's Octagon a fortnight ago. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
Concessions by the Labour coalition Government over sticking points in its controversial employment law reforms have smoothed the way for NZ First to now support the Bill.

Business New Zealand, the Otago Southland Employers' Association and Council of Trade Unions all appear to have been mollified by the changes, after the Bill was was put back before Parliament yesterday, the changes being outlined by Workplace Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway in a supplementary order paper.

The Bill already allows small businesses, employing fewer than 20 people, to continue offering work to new employees on a 90-day trial basis, an option being removed for larger employers.

Virginia Nicholls
Virginia Nicholls
The Government has been plagued by negative business outlook surveys for the past six months, which include uncertainty over the proposed changes to employment relations.

However, in making making two key changes Labour appears to have appeased NZ First and gained its support, while keeping business groups and the Council of Trade Unions on board.

The two changes concern union access to the workplace and the multi-employer collective agreement, or Meca.

Employers have a responsibility to enter into Meca bargaining but will not be compelled to settle an agreement, based on reasonable grounds.

The other change is while unions will have the right to enter work sites where union members are covered by, or bargaining over, a collective agreement, they need consent from employers in any other circumstances.

Otago Southland Employers' Association chief executive Virginia Nicholls welcomed the two main changes, but was otherwise disappointed there were no changes to the 90-day trial periods, or the duty to conclude a collective agreement.

''This will restrict some larger employers who have previously taken risks when employing some at-risk youth who may be new to the workforce,'' Mrs Nicholls said.

She maintained the view that the duty to conclude bargaining breached international labour law and BusinessNZ would continue to pursue that line.

BusinessNZ family organisations EMA, Business Central, Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce and the Otago Southland Employers' Association undertook a high profile campaign against the Bill in its early stages.

BusinessNZ chief executive Kirk Hope said the changes to the Employment Relations Amendment Bill would make parts of the legislation more acceptable to business.

He said the changes resulted from NZ First's influence in changing the Bill and business would be grateful for its input in striking a better balance between employer and worker rights.

''The ban on larger businesses from using 90-day job trials remains, and also the requirement for employers to reach agreement on bargaining demands for collective agreements, a provision which in our view would breach international law,'' Mr Hope said.

The employer organisations' campaign had the support of thousands of small and large businesses and they would be hoping for further changes during the committee stages of the Bill, he said.

The Council of Trade Unions welcomed the progress, noting by implication that there had been no change to requirements relating to meal and rest breaks, about which employers had expressed concern on the detail of their obligations, BusinessDesk reported.

''We would like to see further moves in the future like the scrapping of 90-day 'fire at will' trials, which particularly threaten vulnerable people in already precarious employment,'' CTU president Richard Wagstaff said.

''In an MMP environment, robust law can take time to work through.

''We're encouraged that this Government has consulted with us and other stakeholders to date, and we expect to see further, carefully managed reforms in industrial relations in the near future.''

-Additional reporting from BusinessDesk

simon.hartley@odt.co.nz

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