Ways to wreck the tea-break-busting bill

923390960by Don Franks

National’s tea-break-busting bill will pass through parliament this week.  What will this mean?

The Government’s Employment Relations Amendment Bill makes several changes, including removal of guaranteed tea breaks and meal breaks.  Such breaks have long been part of union awards and agreements but were not in New Zealand law until Labour introduced them in 2008.

The Employment Relations Amendment Bill makes other changes, mostly to the disadvantage of workers and union organisation.  Changes include rights for employers to opt out of multiemployer agreements and removal of the requirement to offer new employees the same terms and conditions for 30 days of employees doing the same work as those covered by a union.

The bill also requires written notice of industrial action, which must include a start and finish date.
And workers lose their existing right to transfer to a new contractor taking over their work and to bargain for redundancy payments.

What to do?

Going on past form, we can expect Labour Party chiefs will tell us to wait until they get back into government and then they’ll sort it out.

That’s not good enough. For starters, the way they’re going at the moment, Labour may never win another election!

Seriously though, Labour has repeatedly shown it can’t be trusted on these matters. They promised to remove the Employment Contracts Act, but only changed its name and left most of the anti-worker provisions intact.

There’s another danger in waiting patiently for Labour to get in. These latest government handouts to bosses are happening because we have been too quiet.

Capitalism is not a humanitarian system. If the bosses can easily squeeze a bit more out of us, well, they will do that.

At the moment a petition against the tea break bill is circulating. It helps keep the issue alive, but that’s all you can expect from a petition. Governments shrug such things off.

To win this one we need to stand up and give the other side a bloody nose.

Direct action is the only thing bosses respect.

I believe this anti-worker law could be made inoperable, by a people’s movement. A movement where everyone agrees to TAKE TEA BREAKS REGARDLESS.

If everyone in an office just took a regular tea break together, a lot of bosses would probably let it go as not worth the hassle.

Strength in numbers

Others bosses would dig in. It would then get nasty, but there’s strength in numbers. Even if your job is not currently a union job.

If we all signed up to this attitude as a tea break club, we could prevail by mutual support. We could all put some money in to help defend victimised club members.

We could get the message out on the street with T-shirts and badges. And stalls, with free tea.

History has shown over and over that a popular idea can become a material force and change society.

A victory on the tea break issue would make our side stronger to resist the other bad things in the bill.

Yes, we’d have to break the law. Yes, some people would get hurt. Like the suffragettes, like the workers before us who formed the first unions.

The question really is: what legacy are we content to pass on to the next generation of toilers?

Further reading: Whatever happened to the leisure society?

See also:

Coming apart down under: the decay of New Zealand capitalist society from the 1970s to 1993
The state of the working class in New Zealand, 1997
A united front against low-paid workers
A strange paradox: can New Zealand workers really be happy with this crap?
Information Technology and the rise of New Zealand’s modern servant class
Bending over backwards: New Zealand’s temp economy and capital’s growing need for ‘flexible’ labour
The real working life of a chef: a view from the inside
Low horizons and the legacy of defeats
Last machinist at Achilles Industries
Pike River: ‘cashflow’ versus workers’ safety


  1. There was an item on Campbell Live last night about the bill. Their reporter went to several different workplaces and found workers not bothered about the bill, as they are able to take their teabreaks when they like and didn’t feel the law change would make their conditions worse.

    In a chunk of workplaces this may well be true. But in many it will be more of a struggle for workers to get what we used to call smoko at all.

    Two things struck me about the item on Campbell Live and the workers they spoke to. One was how less work rights was the new normal. People have been kind of socialised into not having certain rights at work.

    The other thing that struck me was that whereas forty-fifty years ago the promise of capitalism was that we’d soon all be living in a ‘leisure society’, only needing to work 20 hours a week to have all we needed, thanks to machines and expanded productivity, now the promise of capitalism is that we live to work. Work, work, work. Oh yeah, and then more work. Far from the leisure society, we’re now in the endless work society.


  2. So while those in well-paid office jobs have their usual hour to an hour and half, cafe lunch breaks, low paid workers no longer get their measly 15 to 30 mins. Now they’ll get to spend more time being treated like shit by both bosses and customers. Especially since many of them will be forgoing their breaks to serve those having their long cafe lunch breaks.

    • When I worked for Unite the union campaigned hard to get the breaks from 10 minutes to 15 minutes, and in many sites they succeeded. But there were some places where the employers fought really hard against it. Every minute of the day was accounted for in dollars. So if the hotel workers, or the fast-food workers got another 5 minutes, well that equated to x number of hours total across the business. And, gosh, they’d have to employ another person to make up for those ‘lost’ minutes.
      There was also a noticeable trend away from workers having tea breaks and meal breaks together. People would grab a break if they were lucky. It affected the morale of the workplace. Bosses questioned why there was no team spirit, or why people didn’t attend staff functions. I wonder if the lack of break time kinda backfires on the employers in some ways.
      Like you note, white collar jobs, have it much easier. Especially if there are no goods or services being produced it’s a lot more relaxed and tea breaks get stretched.

    • For a while I’ve been thinking about doing a modern day version of. ‘Wage, Price and Profit’. A brief and easy to understand version using the fast-food industry as an example of how Surplus-Value is extracted from workers. With this bill, coming, I think now’s the time to act (once exams are over). We can use this issue to raise awareness about the underlining function of the system. Do you think any unions or campaign groups would be interested in promoting such material?

      • O’shay there is a great article on libcom called ‘hamburgers vs value’ which you may be interested in checking out. Also the pamphlet ‘abolish restaurants’. I’ve been a stove monkey for a few years now feel free if you would like to chat more about hospo.

  3. I can’t help wondering if many workers will be ambivalent to the law change because they already don’t get proper breaks despite the law saying they should. I’ve heard many stories of work places without breaks or were breaks are taken while still working such as receptionists having lunch at the front desk so that it isn’t really a proper break at all.

    Of course this is just all the more reason to build a campaign above and beyond what the state is willing to offer. This is why the narrow ‘within the law’ approach of unions today is woefully inadequte for achiving any real gains for most workers.

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