Workers’ right to rest breaks – Keith Locke’s speech on the Employment Relations (Rest Breaks and Meal Breaks) Amendment Bill, First Reading


The Green Party will be opposing this bill, for many of the reasons that have been expounded by the previous speaker. It is an important bill on health and safety concerns; it undermines the health and safety of workers. Breaks and meal breaks are important, not only to prevent injuries and death, but also so that people can just have a rest, be human, and not be slaves to a clock, working hour after hour without proper rest.

If we look at the explanatory note of the bill, we see that there does not appear to be anything really wrong with the status quo. It states that “Under the status quo, employers and employees are encouraged to work out mutually satisfactory arrangements that fit within current legislative provisions, and can draw on the mediation services of the Department of Labour to assist them to do so.” Apparently, the air traffic controllers, who have been used as an example for the bill going forward, have worked out the situation together with their employers, so that is not a reason to proceed with the bill.

I think that the greater harm—and it was outlined by the previous speaker—is that there is an unequal relationship in the workplace. Many workers in non-unionised retail outlets, restaurants, etc., work for long periods without breaks now. I know some of them myself. A young 19-year-old I know works in a shop. I talked to her recently and asked when she had her breaks. She said “Oh, we’re very busy in this shop. Sometimes we go for hours without a break.” She was not even aware of the law; she was not a member of a union. That is happening in workplace after workplace already, so rather than make it easy for employers to get away without giving appropriate rest breaks, we should stay with the present law and not proceed with this amendment.

John Ryall, who is the national secretary of the Service and Food Workers Union, wrote an article criticising this new amendment. He said that his union submitted to the Transport and Industrial Relations Committee, and brought forward a case of a union member, an Indian immigrant worker, James Joseph, who had the problem of working split shifts. He worked from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and then from 4 30 p.m. to 11 p.m., and when he insisted on having a short break every 3 hours, he was called a troublemaker and sacked. He was told by the employer that it was just not possible because the restaurant was too busy.

That can happen in workplace after workplace. To enable proper rest periods, sometimes the employer has to be subject to certain inconvenience—that is the reality—in order to protect the health and safety, and the rest periods of workers. That is what, perhaps, some people in the National Party do not quite understand. That party has said that this legislation is important for sole charge workers and for air traffic controllers. In the past, bus drivers have been used as an example. Well, it seems to me that the very people we would want to have the most alert, and to have proper breaks, would be air traffic controllers and bus drivers, because it is not just their health and safety that is of concern. If a plane comes down, all sorts of people will be killed and all sorts of families will be left with a tragedy. It is similarly so with bus drivers. If a bus driver gets a bit tired and goes off the road or crashes into a car, what happens?

So from any way we look at it, we should not allow a law that brings in the looseness of compensatory measures. Workers will be able to go without a rest break for a few hours, as long as employers provide compensatory measures. But those are very ill-defined as to their frequency and length. There is just a bit in the legislation to say that such measures can be time in lieu or a different start or finish time. Exactly what that amounts to is not defined in the legislation.

So things are being set up for the employer to determine the provision without the worker, who is often in a very disadvantaged position, particularly if he or she is un-unionised, to really be able to correct the situation. I think that this bill is a departure from New Zealand’s tradition. We have that old tradition going back through New Zealand’s industrial history of awards with clear lunch and smoko breaks. It is true that we are a bit more flexible now, but we do not want to depart too much from that tradition where workers had smoko breaks—we would not call them smoko breaks now; we would call them morning and afternoon tea breaks—and at least half an hour for lunch. That is something we grew up with, something that we were proud of, and something that differentiated us from the United States, for example, which did not have such legislation. I was quite horrified many years ago when I was in industrial situations where we had smoko breaks, lunch breaks, and very rigid times, to learn that in America they just did not have any legislation protecting that situation, whatsoever. I think we have to protect what we have gained over the years, so the Green Party will be opposing this particular legislation.


House of Representatives