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Employment law must draw together, not drive apart

4 September 2013

Employment law must draw people together, not drive them apart

Employment law must contribute to inclusion and encounter in the workplace, rather than encourage labour markets to treat young workers as disposable items in a disposable society, Caritas told a Parliamentary Select Committee this week.

It was an apt time for the Catholic social justice agency to remind Parliamentarians of society’s obligations to support young people entering the workforce. Meaningful work for the young worker is the theme of this year’s Social Justice Week (8-14 September), run annually by the Catholic Church to highlight a topical social justice issue.

Members of the Transport and Industrial Relations Select Committee considering the Employment Relations Amendment Bill were handed copies of Caritas’ Social Justice Week booklet Walk Alongside.

‘We’re inviting Church members, and indeed the whole community, to consider ways to accompany young people struggling to find secure and meaningful work,’ said Caritas Director Julianne Hickey.

While New Zealand’s Catholic Bishops were encouraging employers, Catholic parishes and the community to support young people in work or looking for work, Parliament also needed to provide an employment legislation framework that draws employers and employees together, rather than drives people apart.

Mrs Hickey referred to Pope Francis’ comments in July that widespread youth unemployment was creating a generation unable to experience the dignity of earning their own bread.

‘We have all become accustomed to this disposable culture,’ he had said. ‘With all the young people out of work, even they are affected by a culture in which everything is disposable.’

Mrs Hickey said Catholic social teaching maintains that work is fundamental to human dignity, wages are fundamental to people’s livelihoods, and employers and employees each have rights and duties. Workplace relationships must be marked by respect and by acknowledging that they ‘are far more than a series of market exchanges’.

In addressing the Committee, Caritas’ Social Justice Week coordinator Cathy Bi drew from her own experience of low-paid jobs, and six months’ unemployment after graduating last year.

‘It is difficult to be a young person in the labour market today,’ she said, citing high unemployment (particularly among Māori and Pasifika youth), insecure work, low quality jobs, and increasing casualisation of the labour force.

She was concerned at provisions in the Bill that removed the requirement for new employees in a workplace that had a collective agreement to be offered the collective’s conditions for the first 30 days of their employment.

‘A young person, new to employment and to the world of negotiations, workers’ rights and collective agreements will miss out on the chance to experience the benefits of a collective agreement before deciding whether to join the collective or not.’

Caritas research and advocacy coordinator Lisa Beech raised concerns about the Bill’s changes to ‘good faith’ bargaining which would increase the power of the more powerful party rather than bringing balance to the employer-employee relationship. Conceivably, it could disadvantage a small or weak employer facing a large, strong union; but in most cases the losers would be the most vulnerable workers.

Caritas also opposed changes in the Bill that would diminish the power of Section 6A of the present Act to protect vulnerable workers such as cleaners, whose employers may change – and working conditions be downgraded – when service contracts change hands.

Caritas’ submission on the Employment Relations Amendment Bill is available here.

A special website has been created for Social Justice Week: Meaningful work for the young worker, to share stories, videos, comment and resources on young people and work.


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