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Planned workplace law changes modest

THE DOMINION POST - 16 January 2012

National was elected with a strong mandate to lead the next government. The National party’s proposed changes in the employment law area are modest.

The changes propose to make it easier for employers to refuse to conclude a collective agreement. This means that while the requirement to bargain in good faith will remain, if the parties clearly cannot and will not agree then a collective agreement does not have to be concluded.

The National Party has also said it will remove the obligation to put new staff on a collective agreement for their first 30 days of employment. At the moment employers are forced to offer the terms of the relevant collective agreement for the first 30 days, whether or not the employee chooses to join the union. This was a provision that Labour introduced to help the unions with their recruiting and to ensure that new staff commenced employment on the union negotiated pay rate.

This will mean that new staff will be able to either join the union and get the union pay rate or negotiate their own agreement.

National’s policy will also make it much easier for employers to opt-out of negotiations for a multi-employer collective agreement where they don’t want to be involved in negotiating with their competitors. When workers engage in industrial action such as partial strikes, for example working slowly or stopping for short periods of time or refusing to do certain tasks, the employer will be able to make an equivalent reduction in pay.

National also proposes changes to the minimum wage for youths; that is the ability to engage people on a “start-out wage” (80% of the minimum wage) for the first 6 months of work if they are 16 or 17 years old. Those coming off the benefit aged 18 and 19 and who have been on the benefit six months or more will also be able to be engaged at 80% of the minimum wage.

The flexible working arrangements that are available for some workers who have caring responsibilities will be extended to all employees.

Oddly, National also proposes to review the law on constructive dismissal.

Given that very few people succeed with cases for constructive dismissal it seems hard to see why the law needs changing to help employers.

Constructive dismissal is where a person resigns after they have been forced from their employment by the employer. This has been the law for many years and it seems hard to envisage why change is needed. It is very hard to prove a constructive dismissal.

National’s changes are modest. The Labour party entered the election with changes that were much more significant, and that to some extent would have taken us back to the employment law regime that existed prior to the Employment Contracts Act.

Employment law has been the one area where National and Labour have traditionally had quite different policies. Labour because of its worker focus and historic link with the unions. The influence remains in the Labour Party from the union movement to this day.

National on the other hand, has come from a farming and business background and we know tends to reflect the needs of employers.

It is not clear how the elevation of David Shearer to the Labour Party leadership will influence its stance on industrial relations. However employers would do well to take a keen interest in his views in this area and no doubt, like the unions, try to bring influence to bear.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm was one of the first eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

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