Keith Locke stands up for Workers’ Rights – Employment Relations Amendment Bill (No2) First Reading



The Green Party will also oppose the Employment Relations Amendment Bill (No 2). It is a serious attack on workers’ rights and conditions on a number of fronts.

Firstly, it restricts union officials’ access to work sites in a much greater way than previously. Secondly, it makes it easier for employers to dismiss workers, not only through the generalisation of the 90-day trial period but also through technical changes that make it easier for employers to win a dismissal case. Thirdly, it allows employers to communicate directly with their employees during a bargaining process, so that on a day-to-day basis they can undermine the collective negotiations between the employers and the unions that represent the workers.

I will talk first about the union access provisions that I addressed in my questions to the Minister of Labour at question time today. It is quite clear that there is no need for the tighter provision on union access in terms of the regulatory impact statement made by Kate Wilkinson’s own Department of Labour. It states: “There does not appear to be widespread evidence of union representatives exercising their current rights to enter workplaces in an inappropriate way resulting in disruption for business operations or adversely impacting on the employment relationship between employer and union members.” Further on in that same document it states: “Current arrangements provide an appropriate balance of fairness to employers, employees and unions.” So what is the need for the change? The existing legislation provides a practical surround for union access—that is, the Employment Relations Act specifies that union access is restricted to reasonable times and reasonable ways, having regard to normal business operations and complying with existing health and safety requirements and security procedures. So what more does one want? In this case, it will be much more complicated for union officials to get on to sites, particularly if there is an anti-union employer, because under the provisions in this bill the employer can wait up till 2 days to even respond to a request for access and then the response could be negative. Then the union has to get back and negotiate further. It could go on for days and days. When one talks about an important conflict on the job—perhaps sexual harassment or a personal grievance that often requires immediate attention—the employer can just stuff the union around and hold it off for days and days to get on to the site. Even in a subsequent court case the wording around “access to workplaces” is so vague that postponements could be allowed for all sorts of reasons. The wording in the legislation is that the employer can deny access on “reasonably practicable” grounds.

Then we have the 90-day trial period, which is supposedly to make it easier for employers to hire labour but when we read the information obtained under the Official Information Act from the Department of Labour in a document to Kate Wilkinson, dated 8 June, in terms of the trial period that has existed so far, it states: “very few employers use them for this purpose”—that is, to hire disadvantaged job seekers—”because of the potentially high cost of employing a candidate who was not the best or most able candidate selected from a competitive employment market.” The report goes on to state something else, which is the very thing that the Green Party and others have been saying: “Some employees indicated that they had felt an increased vulnerability by being employed under trial periods.” There will be fear on the job: these workers will be scared to join a union, scared to stand up to their rights because they can be sent down the road at any time in those 90 days for any reason at all. That is disgraceful.

It will divide the workplace between those 90-day workers who are scared about everything, and the union that might be a bit more confident. Then we have the unfair dismissal procedures through the Employment Court and the like. There is a provision in the bill that if the defects in the employer’s case or the process were minor or technical, then the worker can be dismissed. As said by an earlier speaker, this bill does not allow a redress through re-employment the way there is at present. This means that the worker finds it very hard to get justice if he or she is unfairly dismissed. It is an important principle across all our law that we do not say that the problems with process are minor and technical; therefore people who committ those breaches sort of get off and, in this case, do something very damaging to any workers—that is, sack them, deny them of their livelihood.

Losing a job is very traumatic, and we want to keep the disciplines in the Employment Relations Act—that employers have to abide by the provisions of the Act if they want to go through with a dismissal. Then there is the question of collective bargaining. There is a well-established procedure, and the whole concept of collective bargaining is that it is the union on one side of the table and the employer’s representatives on the other side of the table. They negotiate. But it completely undermines that process if the union, which in this circumstance will often not even be allowed access to the site very often to talk to workers, if the union is as disadvantaged as that, the officials are outside the workplace finding it hard to get on, and then day-by-day the employer is saying to the workers that the union proposal to them is just a load of cobblers; and if the supervisors day-by-day talk to individual employees directly and saying: “You don’t believe this; you don’t believe this.”, so intimidating the workers so that one cannot have proper collective bargaining on wages, conditions, or whatever it might happen to be.

So, overall, if we take those issues together, we see that it is not as Kate Wilkinson said in her introduction to this debate that the opponents of this legislation are blinded by ideology. There are very directly practical matters of concern in this legislation. They affect workers detrimentally in their real-life situations. Being dismissed within the first 90 days is real life and a bad thing to happen to someone. Not being able to have one’s representative on the worksite, be it through negotiations over wages, conditions or some immediate issue of bullying or something like that that has come up in the workplace is a real-life problem, and it makes it harder in the workplace. To be dismissed and to not be able to get back one’s job when the process has been wrong is a real-life problem. I think that if we add it all up and then add to that what is coming next—we will shortly probably be debating the holidays bill, the requirement for workers to get a doctor’s certificate for just one day off sick, and being made sicker in the process—it is a very serious attack on workers’ rights and a very serious attack on unions. If we look at the situations with unions at the moment in the private sector, we see that the level of unionisation is not very high at all. That is to a large extent because of the discouragement of employers to their employees. They say “You don’t want to join the union, do you?”, and they put certain penalties around that sometimes. That is what has kept the level of unionisation in the private sector very low—lower than it was in the 1970s and 1980s before the *Employment Contracts Act. Also we live in a time when the economy is not growing rapidly and there is relatively high unemployment. That has pushed down workers’ real wages and conditions for 75 percent of workers over the last year. We need strong unions to redress all of those things. Thank you.