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Labour concessions secure NZ First support for law changes

Labour has made two key concessions to employment law reforms to secure the support of coalition partner New Zealand First.

The two crucial tweaks were announced ahead of the Employment Relations Bill returning to Parliament for its second reading today.

The first change clarifies that an employer must enter into bargaining for a Multi-Employer Collective Agreement, but that the new legislation "does not compel them to settle an agreement".

The second change confirms that union representatives will be able to enter workplaces as of right, but only where "union members are covered by or bargaining for a collective agreement".

In all other cases, consent will be required from the employer before a union representative can enter a workplace.

The changes are likely to go some way to mollifying employer groups who lobbied hard against key aspects of the Bill, which is the first of a two-part employment law reform process the government has embarked on.

NZ First leader Winston Peters first indicated his party was seeking alterations to the Bill in September when he said it was "a work in progress". The issue was one of a number of outbreaks of friction between the coalition partners on a range of policy issues at the time. Peters today said NZ First's contribution to the changes had been to "give small business a fair go".

"We have looked out for small and medium-sized business to ensure that the law reflects their reality," he said. "We heard that changes needed to be made to ensure small businesses weren't unfairly treated under the legislation."

The Bill already allows small businesses, employing fewer than 20 people, to continue offering work to new employees on a 90-day trial basis, an option that is being removed for larger employers.

The government is likely to argue the new wording relating to multi-employer negotiation obligations does no more than set out more clearly its original intentions. But the change is likely to find favour with employers who had feared a 'one-size-fits-all' approach to industry-wide bargaining.

In a statement, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the changes were expected to mean the Bill would pass its second reading today. They were the result of the government listening to submissions in the select committee process and "constructive internal discussions to produce an improved Bill".

"Each party has brought their different views and the subsequent consensus reached will result in employment law that is better for workers and employers," she said. "Every aspect of our Bill is better than the current employment legislation and delivers rights and protections for workers which were stripped from them by National."

The Green Party was also a signatory to the statement outlining the changes, although its contribution to the internal negotiations between the parties of government was not initially obvious.

"Employment relations have become out of balance in New Zealand and this legislation shows the government is listening and making the progressive changes that will benefit New Zealanders," co-leader Marama Davidson said.

The Council of Trade Unions welcomed the progress, noting by implication that there had been no change to requirements relating to meal and rest breaks, where employers had expressed concern about the detail of their obligations.

"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," CTU president Richard Wagstaff said. "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."

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