Unilateral changes claimed

New Zealand Aluminium Smelters (NZAS) made ''unilateral changes'' to some workers' public holiday lieu day entitlements without consultation, a union delegate has told the Employment Court in Invercargill.

Earlier this year, the Employment Relations Authority decided in favour of a case taken by 64 Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) members, who said because they worked standard 12-hour shifts at the Tiwai Point smelter they should receive 12 hours of lieu payments for each public holiday, not the eight hours per day the company had paid them over almost 20 years.

NZAS said paying the 64 workers, and others on identical employment contracts, could cost it $7 million.

NZAS has appealed the decision and a hearing began in Invercargill yesterday, before Judge Tony Couch.

EPMU southern organiser Trevor Hobbs said the issue affected shift workers who had signed employment contracts before 12-hour shifts were introduced in late 1993.

Lieu entitlements were different for newer employees.

When the affected shift workers worked eight-hour shifts, their contracts said they would receive 11 days' wages annually - one for each public holiday - in recognition of being shift workers potentially required to work any day of the year.

This was in addition to pay received if they worked a public holiday.

When the smelter moved to 12-hour shifts, shift workers continued to be paid 11 lieu day payments at eight hours a day, a total of 88 hours per year.

The union believed their lieu payments should be 11 days at 12 hours a day, equating to 132 hours per year, he said.

Mr Hobbs said the issue was first raised by the union in 1995 but was not resolved.

Later, NZAS told workers via an internal memo lieu payments would be paid in hours - 88 hours a year - rather than in days.

That change was significant, he said.

''The company made unilateral changes to workers' contracts without consulting them.

"The company seems to want the best of both worlds - they want workers on individual contracts but they want to make collective changes without consulting individual workers.''

The union was in a similar dispute with NZAS over how much sick leave 12-hour shift workers were entitled to, he said.

Process controller Cliff Dobbie, who has been at the smelter for 24 years, said he believed ''from day one'' workers were disadvantaged by the change to 12-hour shifts in relation to lieu payments.

He said he discussed the issue informally many times and raised it formally four to five times. The company ''brushed off'' his concerns, he said.

Mr Dobbie said as far as he was concerned, the issue was simple - 12-hour shifts should equate to 12 hours of lieu payment for each public holiday.

That was fair, he said. If the situation had been reversed and the smelter had gone from 12-hour shifts to eight-hour shifts, no-one would expect the company to keep paying lieu payments at 12 hours, he said.

Appearing for NZAS, Pheroze Jagose, of Wellington, said the 12-hour shifts were introduced on a ''no loss, no cost'' basis and it had been made clear lieu entitlements would continue to be paid at eight hours a day.

He said the Employment Relations Authority had ''dealt with a contractual issue in a literal way''. The sentence in the workers' contracts it relied on when making its decision had been given ''extraordinarily close attention'' without examination of the other sentences around it.

Mr Jagose submitted the sentence should have been read in context and given its ''ordinary or natural common sense meaning''.

Tom Campbell, a former smelter manager and a department manager at the time 12-hour shifts were introduced, said he believed the company and workers had agreed when 12-hour shifts were introduced workers would still receive lieu payments for public holidays, but they would be paid at eight hours a day, not 12.

Greg Lloyd appeared for the union.

The hearing resumes today.

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