Employment Relations Bill: trashing our past gains

by Don Franks


Concessions by Labour to its coalition partner New Zealand First have further reduced workers’ rights on the job. Legislation will be in the form of the Employment Relations Amendment Bill, now a formality to become law. 

The two recent concessions to the bosses, via NZ First, concerned union access to the workplace and the multi-employer collective agreement, or Meca.

Employers have a responsibility to enter into Meca bargaining but will not be compelled to settle an agreement.

The other change is while unions will have the right to enter work sites where union members are covered by, or bargaining over, a collective agreement, they can be denied access by employers in any other circumstances.

BusinessNZ chief executive Kirk Hope said the changes to the Employment Relations Amendment Bill would make parts of the legislation more acceptable to business.

The Council of Trade Unions also welcomed the result. ”Working people are looking forward to fairer employment law passing this side of Christmas,” says Council of Trade Unions President Richard Wagstaff.

“The eating away of working people’s rights at the margins was a deliberate move by the last Government to put business lobbyists ahead of the wellbeing of working families. This Bill moves us away from a wage-competition, free market model. It gives working people and their unions the ability to push back against exploitative employers.

“We would like to see further moves in the future like the scrapping of 90 day ‘fire at will’ trials, which particularly threaten vulnerable people in already precarious employment.” 

The “fire at will” Wagstaff refers to is the  notorious anti-worker law enabling employers to sack a new employee anytime, without reason, during their first 90 days on the job. Before the last election Labour campaigned on a promise to make changes, thundering in their manifesto:

“National’s ‘fire at will’ law is unfair because it denies employees any recourse against unfair treatment and unjustified dismissal. This means an employer can sack an employee without a fair reason, denying that person and their family a livelihood.”

Once safely elected to office, Labour repealed part of the law, allowing small businesses, employing fewer than 20 people, to keep the 90-day weapon. What difference did this make?

Government statistics reveal this small business to be a huge proportion of the workforce: “As at February 2015, the number of new small enterprises with staff (those with 1-19 employees) was 7,900, over 1,600 more than at the same time in 2014.”

At the time of writing, the overall number of small businesses has reached 487,602, representing 97 percent of all businesses in New Zealand.

The CTU leader’s response to this broken promise: “In  an MMP environment, robust law can take time to work through. We are encouraged that this Government has consulted with us and other stakeholders to date, and we expect to see further, carefully managed reforms in industrial relations in the near future.”

And, in this fashion, the union movement accedes, as it has done for the last few decades.  Little by little, workers’ rights increasingly circumscribed, well-paid union leaders describing this as “fair”.

Hard-working union organisers battling against the odds to revive the shrinking movement are debarred from entering new unorganised sites. It was not always so. In past years, a union official could enter any job any time as long as he or she did not unduly disrupt the employer’s business. Hard-won gains of the past are quietly being dissipated. In New Zealand today, workers’ rights to strike and organise are far fewer than they were half a century ago. How far will this process of restriction continue?  


  1. Well the legislation changes that were promised have been watered down to homeopathic levels. What is good is the mood for ‘having a go’. The number of strikes happening is giving people a sense that striking is a normal thing to do.

  2. Hi Don. You’re misrepresenting the actual legal situation here. Union organisers are not barred from entering unorganised sites as you state. Access can not be unreasonably withheld. It is true that employers can use this provision to delay access and otherwise mess around with the union. I think you need to take the time and read the legislation. There’s no doubt the Bill has been watered down and that is extremely disappointing but it is not diminishing rights as you are arguing here. The CTU needs to be criticised for putting out press releases that let the Govt off the hook but it needs to be done in a factual way. Otherwise you are undermining the credibility of the critique. Cheers

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