KEITH LOCKE (Green)
The Green Party is opposed to the Holidays Amendment Bill, along with our opposition to the Employment Relations Amendment Bill (No 2), which passed its first reading last week. Together these bills represent a major attack on workers and their trade unions. Kate Wilkinson, the Minister of Labour, said in her opening speech in this debate that the Holidays Amendment Bill will “improve the balance of fairness” between employers and employees. The Green Party believes that the balance is being tipped strongly against workers.
We can look at the various provisions of the bill to prove that assertion. For example, on the sick leave provision Kate Wilkinson said the proposal will allow employers to request proof of sickness for one day’s absence “without first having reasonable grounds to suspect that the sick leave is not genuine.” That is, she explicitly said an employer does not need reasonable grounds for doing so, and the employer can be, in effect, unreasonable and require a medical certificate for any reason, no matter how unreasonable that request is. It may be that the employer just wants to encourage workers to stay on the job even when they are sick, in order to keep up the numbers in the workforce. That would be an unreasonable approach, but it would be allowed under this amendment. It could be done to persecute a particular worker whom the employer happens to want to ease out of the workforce, not because the person is performing badly at work but perhaps because the person is more active than other workers in the union and is causing some upset to an anti-union employer because of their strong union advocacy. There are all sorts of unreasonable reasons that could be given for demanding a medical certificate for 1 day’s absence.
Hon Ruth Dyson
: Or no reason.
: No reason has to be provided by the employer in that situation.
Already we had in the law, before this bill was introduced, a provision that an employer could demand a medical certificate for 1 day’s absence where there were reasonable grounds for doing so. There would be reasonable grounds, clearly, where an employee had taken consecutive Mondays off and was being unreasonable, in the sense that he or she might not really be sick on those days. So there is already a provision to cover reasonable behaviour by employers and employees in dealing with this matter.
The result of asking for a medical certificate for 1 day’s absence will be that workers will tend to stay at work even when they are sick, because they will not want to go through all the hassle of taking the day off, then having to go off to a doctor if they can get an appointment, etc. By staying on the job when they are sick, they will be likely to infect other workmates, and that can be a health problem.
There are three problems with requiring employees to go to the doctor when they are sick for 1 day, perhaps with a stomach bug or cold. The first is that it is against good medical advice. The doctor does not want people to get out of bed, struggle through the cold and rain, and sit in the waiting room for an hour, because that only makes them sicker. Secondly, there is a problem in getting an appointment with a doctor. When the Green Party did a snap survey by phoning 40 doctors, only 12 of them could provide an appointment on that particular day, so that is a problem. Then the third problem is that when workers are sitting around in the waiting room, they spread sickness to the other patients unnecessarily if they have a temporary stomach bug or cold. This bill is a huge problem for workers, and it is a problem in terms of good employment relations and the process of working in the workplace.
The second proposal in this bill provides the ability for workers and employers to arrange for the selling-off of the fourth week of workers’ 4 weeks of statutory holidays. Firstly, I ask what this says about our society. We are in a digital age, when the work process is becoming much more efficient. All sorts of labour-saving devices are available in terms of the production process, so surely we should be moving further towards a leisure society. It was 170 years ago that Samuel Parnell went on strike for the 8-hour day, and now many workers often work longer than 8 hours. Surely we can now have a decent level of annual leave, and everyone can take 4 weeks’ annual leave. It is not as though we are ahead of the pack internationally on annual leave. I looked at some of the major countries in Europe and found that Germany has 6 weeks’ annual leave, Italy has 5½ weeks, France has 5 weeks, and Spain has 4½ weeks, yet we have only 4 weeks. Why should we reduce that amount down to 3 weeks for some workers? Surely we should encourage everyone to take the full entitlement. It is good for people to do so in terms of their health, including their mental health, and it is also good for their families and their communities. It means that workers can engage in a whole lot of other activities outside the workforce.
I will look at the people who are most likely to trade in their holidays. They are exactly the people who need the fourth week of holiday the most. They are generally poorer people, who will trade it in just for the money, even though they need a holiday. They are usually people from bigger families, and those people need the fourth week of holiday for family time.
It is often people who already work very long hours, and who are more likely to work overtime, who will be pressured into selling the fourth week of their statutory holidays. Shift workers, who need that fourth week, will be pressured in that direction also. People who work in manual jobs, or who are stressed already, will be more likely to be forced to sell off their holidays, as will people who work in strenuous jobs and who need the fourth week of holidays.
In non-unionised workplaces, even though selling the fourth week is supposed to be voluntary, employers will have a way of putting pressure on workers, and there will be an expectation that they will sell off their holidays. Once these holidays are sold off by a certain proportion of the workforce, there will be an expectation that in order for the work to continue in the way that the employers want, the remaining proportion of the workforce will be required, in effect, to sell off their fourth week of holidays.
Another problem in this bill is the provision to transfer one or another of the existing 11 statutory public holidays to another day. The argument is that perhaps it is more culturally or religiously appropriate to celebrate them on another day, for someone from a non-Christian religion, for example. But the great thing about us all having holidays in common, as at present, is that it enables families and communities to get together, and it means that those days are quiet days. We do not want to destroy a sense of community and family togetherness. If we are to allow for other religious holidays to be taken, perhaps it would be good to add to our number of statutory public holidays. We have only 11 of those days at the moment, and some other countries have more than that. Perhaps we could have one or two optional holidays, in addition to the present number of holidays. I might want to take St Patrick’s Day as a holiday, as I am someone with a bit of Irish heritage. But any additional statutory holidays should not be at the expense of the existing statutory holidays that we all so value. We are not just puppets to be pushed around, in terms of what is required of us in the workforce. We should all have these entitlements. The Green Party is very much opposed to this bill.