Keith Locke on Employment Relations Amendment Bill (No 2) – second reading



It is very sad that the Transport and Industrial Relations Committee did not come back with a strong report rejecting this bill, and that the majority of the select committee did not listen and take in the many representations from individual workers and, as has just been mentioned, unions and community organisations, all of whom were opposed to the bill. Sure, some submissions were in favour of the bill but they were few and far between. Some of them made some good points but the overwhelming feeling of the submissions was against this bill because it takes away fundamental union rights. If members want to read the detail of that they can read the Green and Labour Party minority report, which explains the problems with the bill. Just to go over the fundamental union rights that have been taken away, one of the most fundamental rights was the right of members of the union to talk to union officials in the place where they work. That is the question of union access. The present system operates pretty well. We heard all the submissions and we questioned employer representatives. There was not much evidence at all that there was any significant disruption in the workplace under the present system of union access, which does require that access to be at reasonable times and not to be overly disruptive of the workflow, etc. There were very few complaints about the present system before this bill. This bill does put unions at a big disadvantage. It has been indicated that there were some improvements in relation to the delays, but unions can still be delayed up to a couple of days in terms of getting into a job site. Various union representatives explained to the select committee their practice in visiting worksites. A lot of them have to cover a lot of worksites in a day and they have to be able to vary the visits a bit. If, say, they have 10 worksites to cover in a day, and they have to spend a bit more time at one worksite because there is a bit of a health and safety problem, you may have to phone up the next worksite and say—


: The member is including me.


: I am very sorry, Mr Assistant Speaker. The union official would phone up the employer at the next worksite and say: “Look, I was going to come at around 8 o’clock. I’ve got to put that out to 10 o’clock. I’ve got a bit of a problem here.” That flexibility is built into the system whereby the employer will cooperate with changing times and all the rest of it. Now, an employer who does not want the union to be on the job, or who wants to weaken the union, will be able to put off that visit for a couple of days, muck around with the time, and make it much more difficult for the union to operate. As the previous speaker said, there might be very important immediate issues, such as health and safety issues, that require attention, although the employer might say that it is not a health and safety issue. I have been in a situation like that myself. At one point I was working in a motor factory and there was a problem with fumes coming into the manufacturing section where we were making seats. The employer did not think that fumes were coming in. We did. We were being affected by the fumes and we took a form of union action against that. One can see that there is not necessarily agreement between the employer and union on whether there is actually a health and safety issue. So there has to be a flexible system for union access. The next basic right undermined by this bill is the right to stay in one’s job—that is, to stay in employment. That right is threatened by the 90-day provision being extended to all workers. The basic thing about staying in a job is the right not to be dismissed without good cause and without a reason being given. If people can be sacked at will within the first 90 days of their employment without a reason being given, as this bill provides, they naturally feel very hurt, particularly if they do not think there is a good reason, it is just that they are being picked on, and they have not had a fair go. That grievance carries on in the person’s emotions and feelings for a long time if they lose their job unjustly under that 90-day provision.

New workers lose a sense of power. There is a feeling of powerlessness and they feel their future for those 90 days is at the whim of the employer. This particularly affects the type of people who are likely to be coming in under the 90-day provision. They will often be the more powerless workers—the marginalised workers, some younger people, and workers who have been unemployed and who will have found it to more difficult to get a job. They are already feeling powerless, and they will feel even more powerless under this provision. The other thing, which is not recognised sufficiently by this Parliament, is the effort that people sometimes go to to get a job. They may go from one side of the world to the other as migrants coming in, and it has cost them a lot. They have shifted their family, or else their family has been divided for a while because the mother or father goes ahead and gets the job and the rest of the family comes later. They may also be workers who have been unemployed, say, in Auckland and who have moved down to the Waikato, Whanganui, or somewhere else to get a job on a farm. They take their family, set their children up at a school, and then, 75 days later, they can be just sacked without any reason. Just today I received the case of Cheryl and Bruce, who had shifted to be a herd manager and a relief milker* on a farm. They had tried to defend a migrant worker who was working on the same farm, and the employer told them to get lost and they had lost their jobs. There was no reason for the dismissal in terms of their work, their politeness, or anything else; it was just that in this case, the employer did not want anyone to dissent on any matter. Now they have all sorts of problems with their kids being at a local school, which means they have to drive them 40 minutes each way to school each day because they had to shift out from the farm, and they have all the rest of the problems associated with this 90-day provision. The idea that the 90 day provision is voluntary and that people do not have to agree to it is a bit of a joke, particularly in the situation now where we have growing unemployment. If people want a job, then employers will often insist they have to go under the 90-day provision in this bill. This bill also weakens unions in the sense that there is a division of the workforce who are on a particular job. Workers who are there for less than 90 days will feel reluctant to criticise anything that happens in the workplace for fear of losing their job. Those workers will not want to join the union, particularly if the union is the subject of some contention with the employer, because they could be seen as people who might stand up for their rights or who might be a bit more stroppy than others in the workforce. The employer might want to send them down the road in favour of a more compliant person, and there are plenty of examples of that happening. The idea that more jobs are available through the 90-day provision has not been proved, either. In fact, we gets a less efficient workforce if employers can hire people for just 90 days and then get rid of them, because there will be less training as those workers will be treated as temporary labour. Another issue dealt with in the Labour Party and Green Party minority report is the personal grievance situation. People can be sacked and reinstatement is not a primary remedy. So if an employer wants to get rid of a union delegate, the employer might just kick that person down the road as he or she will not be able to come back on the job. That might cost the employer a bit at the Employment Court, but the employer can intimidate the rest of the workforce by getting rid of the lead union delegate. That is the sort of thing that will happen if we do not provide primarily for reinstating people. Good-faith bargaining is also undermined by this provision, which allows employers to swamp the workers with their side of the story when there is some contention over, say, an employment contract. The union does not have the ability to get at all the shareholders to swamp the shareholders with the workers’ side in an employment dispute between unions and employers, so it is a very one-sided provision. It will undermine good-faith bargaining between employers and unions, which is the heart of good unionism. Altogether, this is a very bad bill. There have been huge demonstrations around the country against it. I, along with Carol Beaumont, was at the one in Auckland, which thousands of people attended. The unions are more active now than they have been for many years.