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Improving and keeping workers rights safe

Improving and keeping workers rights safe

Labour Minister Trevor Mallard speech to the launch of the New Zealand Work & Labour Market Institute. Inaugural AUT Annual Public Employment Relations Lecture.

Thank you very much for inviting me here to speak and for giving me the opportunity to deliver the inaugural AUT Annual Public Employment Relations Lecture.

But before I do this, I am very pleased to formally launch the New Zealand Work & Labour Market Institute. I am told that the institute is the main concentration of New Zealand expertise in human resources management, employment relations and labour economics, and the second or third greatest concentration of expertise in the Asia Pacific region.

It is the hub for New Zealand expertise across six universities in these fields, as well as a major point of connection with key international players in 17 universities as well as the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

The institute has adopted a unique holistic approach to the development of research-informed public policy development, recognising the importance of productive and satisfying paid and non-paid work to sustainable firms, organisations and communities.

So it is an honour to be here today. Thanks also to the organisers of this event and the Auckland University of Technology and congratulations to AUT on the establishment of the New Zealand Work & Labour Market Institute.

Being election year, I'm very happy to accept your invitation to talk about the future outlook for employment relations in New Zealand.

But first, I need to discuss the current environment in employment relations and what changes have been made over the last eight years and why.

From my point of view, any discussion on employment relations and what goes on in the workplace has to be underlined by our government's deeply held and philosophical beliefs in the rights of working people and our belief in the importance of constructive partnerships between employers and employees at work .

New Zealanders spend a great deal of their lives working and contributing to local and national economies – being happy and healthy and motivated in a positive working environment is not only good for the individual worker and their family and local community, but it has spinoffs for business and industry too.

Labour has a proud and unmatched record in this respect, and it is important for any discussion on the policy of the current government that we remember what motivates our approach to employment relations.

I do believe that we have got to the stage in New Zealand where both employers and unions have come to appreciate the importance of having cooperative and collaborative working relationships.

In many ways this is thanks to the repeal of the antagonistic Employment Contracts Act that had stripped the guts out of workers' rights and destroyed any chance of workers playing a constructive role in their employer's business, let alone being motivated to do so.

Our introduction of the Employment Relations Act tipped back the scales and restored a true balance into the relationship between employers and working New Zealanders.

Historically low levels of unemployment have also provided an excellent opportunity to build on the changes embodied in the Employment Relations Act and to further develop positive, co-operative employment relations frameworks.

The Employment Relations Act re-established the legitimacy of collectives and collective bargaining. It moved the focus of employment relations on to building productive employment relationships. It emphasised the importance of good faith in all aspects of employment relations.

The key approach that underpinned this is tripartism — a groundbreaking partnership between government, business and unions. This government works closely with Business New Zealand and the Council of Trade Unions (CTU).

The three social partners have worked well together, despite some differences in views, over a number of important initiatives, including the Workplace Productivity Agenda and the work-life balance initiative.

One of the key focuses has been on fostering good employment relations and co-operative approaches in the workplace. By providing reasonable legislation we have been able to help employers and employees maintain fair, co-operative and effective relationships.

Changes made to employment over the last eight years

The Employment Relations Act was the starting point for the government’s work in the employment relations area across a range of issues and there is no doubt at all that workers are better off today than they were when we first came to power.

We have increased the minimum wage every year since 1999, lifting it 61 per cent ($5.00) so that it is now $12 an hour. And we will continue to use increases in the minimum wage as a way of helping the lowest paid in society as long as economic conditions allow.

Workers now have four weeks holiday under the new Holidays Act, the first change to holidays’ legislation since 1981. We are enshrining meal and breast feeding breaks into law.

The historic introduction of paid parental leave under the Labour-led government has provided parents with the flexibility they need to care for their children and maintain a link with work.

With the extension of eligibility to the self-employed it is now available to 90 per cent of women in paid employment.

In 2006, this was extended to 14 weeks and the maximum weekly amount payable was increased.

In line with our approach of continually looking at improvements to existing government policy and services across all areas of government, we have also made it clear that we will consider further extensions to the scheme.

This might be through an increase in duration, increase in payments and extending eligibility to fathers – one option being that fathers would be able to take paid parental leave at the same time as mothers.

It is worth noting that the existing provisions are better than what is available in Australia.

The re-nationalisation of ACC has provided for comprehensive accident compensation coverage for employers and employees. The ACC Partnership Programme also offers significant levy discounts to employers who take responsibility for their own workplace health and safety and the management of workplace injuries.

New health and safety legislation and initiatives have been put in place to lift health and safety performance. Great health and safety performance is a key indicator of business success.

It underlines the importance of committed leadership, good systems and employee involvement.

As Canadian research has found, there is a link between good health and safety practices and business longevity and success.

We have also been working with our social partners – Business New Zealand and the Council of Trade Unions – on the Work-Place Productivity Agenda.

More than 3000 businesses have attended workshops on Work-Place Productivity, and the CTU has done a lot of hard work taking the productivity message to employees.

These workshops aim to make workplaces both more productive and also better places to work.

Promoting better work-life balance is a key component of this. The recent amendment to the Employment Relations Act (ERA) provides workers who are caring for someone with the right to request flexible working arrangements.

This will help many workers achieve a better balance between the needs of their work and those they are caring for, making the workplace an even more attractive place for valued workers.

KiwiSaver has also been a major step forward in helping people save for the future while at the same time helping to deepen capital markets to enable more growth and innovation in our economy.

These changes have created a solid basis upon which we can build effective, fair, equitable and productive employment relations.

Future trends in labour markets and employment relations

Looking to the future, I see employment relations in New Zealand being a process of building on the sound base that has been developed over the last eight years, further improving workplace relations, increasing productivity and ensuring fair and equitable terms for employees.

There is a continuing role for social dialogue to help sustain a co-operative approach to employment relations environment. It involves both our social partners and other groups and individuals involved in employment relations. This includes the continuing interaction between government and academic institutions such as AUT.

What the government is doing next?

From here on, the government has in train a number of projects that we hope will help shape future employment relations.

We will continue to focus on improving the working lives of the most vulnerable members of the labour force and to strengthen protections available to contract workers. For instance, I recently announced proposed law changes to give greater protection to casual and temporary workers.

Productivity is going to continue to be a major part of employment relations in the future. Productivity improves when employees and employers work together to achieve a shared vision – it is not about working longer hours, it is about working smarter.

A great example of this partnership approach to workplace productivity is the Engineering Printing and Manufacturing Union, Dairy Workers Union and Business New Zealand project to work with 12 manufacturing and maintenance workplaces to build effective employer-worker-union partnerships.

Future employment relations will continue the focus on choice and flexibility. Increasingly, flexible working arrangements and good parental provisions will make work-life balance a key consideration in any well-functioning workplace

It is essential that the government provides both employers and employees with easy access to user-friendly information about employment relations.

To this end, we are currently providing training through the Employment Relations Education Fund, looking to improve the dispute resolution processes and provide good online information about KiwiSaver and the Holidays Act.

You can see we have come an incredibly long way in the last eight years – and there is not much dispute that as a result there have been tangible and real improvements to the working lives of many New Zealanders, many who are vulnerable in the workplace.

This approach is at Labour's core, and we are in no doubt that what workers have gained – the longer holidays, minimum wage increases, paid parental leave entitlements – are only safe under a Labour-led government.

We know this because we have National's track record in government and in opposition and we know that lying beneath the surface remains its ideological obsession with helping its special interests.

Can we trust them?

No we can't. The party has opposed every single improvement to the working lives of New Zealanders that we have made since 1999 – they opposed minimum wage rises, they opposed paid parental leave, they opposed flexible working arrangements, they opposed four weeks annual leave, they opposed KiwiSaver?

The fact they have opposed every improvement certainly points the way to their yet to be disclosed plans for the future – why else would they have attacked these initiatives at every turn? Why else are their MPs saying employer contributions to KiwiSaver will go - despite efforts by their leadership to muzzle them? Why else is John Key refusing to be interviewed on KiwiSaver.

For instance their plans for the introduction of the 90 day probationary period reveals their true colours – and is an attack on workers' rights, leaving them vulnerable and without basic employment rights for three months.

This will remove the incentive for employers to aim for a positive employment relationship as it gives them the power to sack without reason or redress during the first three months of employment.

The effect of this would be widespread. Every three months on average 300,000 of a million people start a new job. In small businesses, the figure is more than 100,000 people starting a new job. So that's a lot of workers on the job without basic employment rights.

It's also totally unnecessary – as the ERA already allows for probationary periods but still gives personal grievance rights alongside to make sure workers won't be abused, bullied and sexually harrassed.

And it would be absolute madness for business to take this approach in a time of skilled labour shortages.

Labour on the other hand, is absolutely upfront and honest with voters about our intentions to continue the improvements that people have enjoyed to date.

For our part, we have no intentions of turning back the clock and returning to the dark days of divisive workplaces where employers and employees battled it out over basic entitlements.

We have seen how progress can be made when there is collaboration between government, business and unions, and we are committed to doing even more in this space, building on our experience to date.

Productive, innovative and motivated workplaces are a key to lifting wages and improving the welfare of workers and the health and growth of our businesses and the New Zealand economy.

Academic centres such as the New Zealand Work & Labour Market Institute have a significant contribution to make to the future development of employment relations and I look forward to seeing your work. Academic research fosters important debate and can cast light on complex social and economic problems, and point the way for the future.

I am happy to be here at your launch and I wish you all the very best for your future work.


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