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First Anniversary Of The Workers’ Rights Service

The First Anniversary Of The Workers’ Rights Service

May Day marks the first anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Rights Service at the Wellington People’s Centre. The Workers’ Rights Service is the only free specialist employment advocacy service in Central Wellington. In their first year of existence, the Workers’ Rights Service has taken more than seventy cases and has helped the large majority to a successful conclusion. Jeff Sissons, the coordinator of the service, is pleased with the outcomes of the cases so far but says “there are huge numbers of workers out there who just don’t know their rights at work. They need this information and many need help to get access to their rightful entitlements.”

The Workers’ Rights Service primarily takes cases on behalf of low-income non-unionised workers. Jeff sees the Service as filling a big gap in the employment law system: “Most of New Zealand’s workforce is non-unionised and by the time people have a problem at work and need their union it’s often too late for them to join. We fully support the unions and refer everyone who uses the Workers’ Rights Service to their appropriate union- they provide the best protection for workers. However many people are prevented by circumstance or lack of foresight from joining a union and we think that they should have access to help when they get into trouble.”

Robert Reid, President of UNITE, a union for low paid and casualised workers, said that the Workers Rights Service offered an invaluable addition to supporting those most disadvantaged in the labour market. "Because of the pressing needs of already existing members many unions do not assist non-members with employment problems," Robert Reid said. "UNITE is very supportive of the work the Workers Rights Service is undertaking to fill this gap. Already a number of workers suffering unjustified dismissals or other employment problems have benefited from the advocacy of the service."

Jeff says that using lawyers to resolve employment disputes can often be prohibitively expensive. “The reality is that hiring a lawyer for a few hours can cost more than the employer was ever going to give the employee or at the least take a big chunk of any settlement offered.” He is also critical of some contingency-fee employment services “what people often don’ t realise is that the amounts agreed upon at mediation or awarded at the Employment Relations Authority are quite small. It depends on the nature of the case but the majority of employees walk away with less than five thousand dollars. To lose twenty percent of that already small sum to a contingency fee advocate for what is sometimes very basic advocacy can leave people feeling worse than before.”

Jeff believes that the good faith provisions of the Employment Relations Act have helped to break down an ‘us versus them’ view of employment law especially among employers. “In our experience, there are very few bosses who are actively trying to take advantage of their workers. Such employers do exist but our main enemy is ignorance of rights and responsibilities in the workplace on the part of both employers and employees. We don’t think that there’s an excuse for this type of ignorance on the part of employers, however. The Employment Relations Act has been in force for nearly four years now- long enough for even the slowest reader to get through it.”

An example of how the Workers’ Rights Service operates is given by the story of Jean (not her real name). Jean was having problems meeting performance targets at work and she was worried about losing her job. The Workers’ Rights Service began by calling her employer and trying to sort out their concerns about her performance. Jean continued to have problems however and we found out that she was trying to tend to her dying mother as well as work full time. She felt that she could not leave her job because she desperately needed the money. The Workers’ Rights Advocate referred Jean to the Benefit Rights Service and they convinced Work and Income to give her a partial benefit (which they had initially refused). The Worker’s Rights Service then negotiated with Jean’s employer to make her job part-time. Jean was soon much happier and her employer’s concerns about her performance disappeared.

The Workers’Rights Service is part of the Wellington People's Centre based at 2 Lukes Lane, Wellington. Their opening hours are 5.30-7.30 pm Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and 12.30-2.30pm on Friday. The number for the Centre is (04) 385-8596.

The Wellington People’s Centre is a non-profit organisation set up to provide affordable health and advocacy services for beneficiaries and low-income earners. The Workers’ Rights and Benefit Rights Services are free to all. For a fee of $2.50 per week, Centre members get access to low cost medical and dental services as well as a range of others such as hairdressing, massage, podiatry, counselling as well as many others.

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