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Centenary marked by more protection for workers

Hon Maryan Street
Cabinet Minister
23 March, 2008 Speech


Centenary marked by more protection for workers


Tena tatou katoa,

It’s great to be here with you all to celebrate the 100 year aniversary of a strike which dramatically changed the future of workers in New Zealand and which sowed the seed for the birth of the New Zealand Labour Party.

The structure and conditions of the coal-mining industry in towns like Blackball all those years ago provided fertile, if not fetid, ground for fiesty debate on industrial relations practices, some of which are still salient today.

From the 1880s, a small group of the country’s capitalist elite controlled the industry. The conditions of work were dangerous and the workers lived in isolated environments.

Ettie Rout when editing the Maoriland Worker said of the miners: ‘They live in gloomy valleys, they work in holes in the earth, they live on the West Coast where it is nearly always raining, where 80% of the men drink, drink, drink, in a wild endeavour to forget who they are and where they live.’

It is a depressing yet obviously empathetic description, but of course, the environment also made it easy to organise resistance and create a sense of togetherness.

That and the fact many of the miners were of British origin, with a strong trade union history.

These conditions together with particular events saw many mining towns become centres for socialist activism and teaching. The result was a series of strong unions and a pattern of strikes.

The unions included the Amalgamated Miners and Labourers Association, which had some success in the Grey and Buller areas in the 1880s under John Lomas’s leadership and the Federation of Miners or ‘Red Feds’, which grew out of the successful 1908 strike at Blackball.

Of course, the struggle for workers’ rights immortalised here in Blackball continues and there are many familiar faces here today who are actively engaged in continuing to carry that flag.

I won’t dwell on what happened here 100 years ago because the story about the miners’ successful battle for their 15 minute lunch time to be 30 minutes long will have been well canvassed already this weekend. And I’m sure your primary focus at this point is a well-earned meal break!

The announcement I’m making here today on behalf of my colleague Trevor Mallard is however is very relevant to the Crib Time strike of yesteryear.

It is also demonstrates the Labour Party’s on-going commitment to the protection of workers’ rights.

Anecdotal evidence has suggested that workers may be getting less than optimal meal and rest breaks in some workplaces and parts of the service and manufacturing sectors in particular. The Labour-led government wants to make sure that there is absolutely no doubt that these basic entitlements must be provided for.

Under legislative changes, to be introduced this year, a person working a standard eight hour day will be entitled to a minimum of two 10 minute paid rest breaks and one half hour meal break. The breaks will have to be fairly timed so that, for example, the meal break is taken as near as is practicable to the middle of the work period.

While it may not impact on the tea and meal breaks of a number of workers, it may have a significant impact on some and importantly it will enshrine the rights to these breaks for all workers in the future.

It will probably surprise many people to learn that there is no explicit legal requirement for employees to have rest and meal breaks or for provision of such breaks to be included in employment agreements.

While almost 93 per cent of active collective agreements provide for rest and meal breaks, the organisation of work in some specific sectors is such that workers in those industries may be missing out on adequate breaks.

Similarly there is no explicit legal protection ensuring women have the right to breastfeed their babies while they are at work.

Breastfeeding is the key to providing the best start to life for our infants and is important to both maternal and infant health. Furthermore, research shows it can also reduce societal health care costs.

Yet the evidence suggests that access to breastfeeding breaks and facilities in the workplace is mixed and the extent to which discrimination on the grounds of breastfeeding is understood to be prohibited is mixed.

So the Labour-led government has chosen this centenary weekend as the appropriate time to announce its plans to boost protection for vulnerable workers and breastfeeding mothers through legislation.

The breastfeeding changes will see the Employment Relations Act requiring employers to provide, where reasonable and practicable, facilities and breaks for employees who wish to breastfeed. A code of practice will also be developed in order to assist employers and employees when putting the breastfeeding requirements into place at their own workplace.

The law will also be changed to explicitly prevent discrimination on the basis of breastfeeding. The definition of “sex” as a prohibited ground for discrimination in the Human Rights and Employment Relations Acts is already interpreted as extending to breastfeeding – but stronger and more explicit protections are needed in the workplace context.

The government is also announcing today changes to the Holidays Act to allow the transfer of public holidays for someone who works a shift that crosses the hour of midnight on a public holiday.

The original intention of the Act was to give employers and employees the flexibility to transfer a public holiday from a day listed in the Act to another day for reasons of cultural or personal significance, or convenience. This could not diminish an employee’s statutory right to public holidays.

However, a recent Supreme Court decision (New Zealand Airline Pilots Association Industrial Union of Workers Incorporated v Air New Zealand Limited) ruled that an employer and employee cannot transfer a public holiday from a day listed in the Act to another day.

This has had a significant effect on many businesses that operate shifts that span two calendar days. Where a shift has ended on a public holiday, many of these businesses had agreements with employees to transfer the public holiday to the following shift the employee would have worked.

However, because of the Court decision, some businesses now stop work at midnight and resume the shift 24 hours later, which means the employees work a split shift and are not able to enjoy a whole working day off as a public holiday.

This amendment will apply when an employee’s shift spans two calendar days and at least one of those days is a public holiday. A shift may only be transferred if there is a genuine agreement between an employee and employer, and employees keep their statutory rights to public holidays.

This proposed change is supported by unions (the NZCTU) and business interests (Business New Zealand) as it can benefit both employers and employees.

The government is planning a wider review of the effectiveness of the Holidays Act, and the issue of employees or employers transferring public holidays for reasons of cultural or personal significance, or convenience, will be considered in that review.

As Trevor Mallard, the Minister of Labour, will be saying in a statement due to go out about now, the changes are further proof of the government's strong commitment not only to workers, but their families as well – at a time when National has voted against and attacked initiatives such as paid parental leave, Working for Families, 20 hours free early childhood education, and annual increases to the minimum wage.

I now look forward to joining you all for lunch, which I think will be all the more enjoyable because we know that once again the labour movement, including its political arm the Labour Party, has moved further to secure the rights of workers – some of whom will be working today. The battle for decent lunch break erupted here 100 years ago and has now been finally put to bed!

ENDS

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