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Workers to get more protections in workplace

23 March 2008 Media Statement

Workers to get more protections in workplace

The government is to boost protections for vulnerable workers and breastfeeding mothers by putting minimum meal and rest break requirements into the law, along with a code of practice to promote breastfeeding in the workplace.

Labour Minister Trevor Mallard announced the changes today, marking the centenary commemorations of the 1908 Blackball miners strike over meal breaks – a historic event that gave birth to the Labour Party. He also announced plans to allow shift workers to transfer their public holidays. The changes will be to the Employment Relations Act and Holiday Act.

"It may surprise many people that no statutory requirement for meal and rest breaks exists – but minimum entitlements to rest and meal breaks during a working period is already in the vast majority of collective agreements. However, anecdotal evidence has suggested some sectors – the service and manufacturing sectors in particular and sectors where there are a lot of vulnerable workers - may be providing less than optimal breaks.

"Most New Zealanders would have thought that these sorts of minimum entitlements are already part of the statutes – and while most workers do enjoy these protections, the Labour-led government is making sure that there is absolutely no doubt that these basic entitlements must be provided for."

Cabinet Minister Maryan Street announced the changes on behalf of Trevor Mallard in her speech at the centenary commemorations for the 1908 Blackball strike where 166 miners took strike action– demanding and eventually achieving a 30-minute lunch break.

"It is fitting that we announce these legislative changes today as we all commemorate and pay tribute to the 166 miners – whose courageous and ground-breaking actions triggered the birth of the modern Labour Party," Maryan Street said.

Trevor Mallard said the changes were further proof of the Labour-led government's strong commitments to workers, and families – at a time when National has voted against and opposed initiatives such as paid parental leave, Working for Families, 20 hours free early childhood education, and annual increases to the minimum wage.

"Breastfeeding is critical to providing the best start for New Zealand infants and important to both infant and maternal health. It can also help employers in their staff recruitment and retention - by helping mothers to return to work. Employees’ current access to breastfeeding breaks and facilities in the workplace is mixed - the proposed change will introduce a code into the Employment Relations Act."
Further detail around the three changes in workers' statutory protections follows.

Meal and rest breaks – change to Employment Relations Act
Someone working a standard eight hour day, for example, would be entitled to a minimum of two 10-minute paid rest breaks and a half hour unpaid meal break throughout the day. If an employment agreement had more generous entitlements, then they would apply.

Breastfeeding code of practice – change to Employment Relations Act
Infant feeding through breastfeeding will be protected and promoted by requiring employers to provide, where reasonable and practicable, facilities and breaks for employees who wish to breastfeed. The law change will be supported by a code of employment practice – offering guidance to employers on how to uphold these obligations.

Transfer of public holidays for shift workers – change to Holidays Act
This change will amend the Holidays Act 2003 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 Incorporate 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, as a result 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.

Timing: These three proposed changes to legislation will be introduced this year.


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