Disclaimer: The opinion piece below was written by President of the NZ Council of Trade Unions Richard Wagstaff, and was originally published on the NZ Herald website. We just think it’s super cool and wanted to share it. 


There is no doubt that the changes this Government is making to employment law will make working people’s lives better. Bringing back rest and meal breaks mean the few unlucky people with employers who took them away, will get them back.

Restoration of union access means that working people who have experienced difficulty with their employer’s willingness to see them fairly represented will know they have better support.

And reinstating protections for vulnerable workers during contracting changes means low-income people won’t have their incomes cranked down through competitive tendering.

You may have noticed a pattern here. The vast majority of the changes are simply returning things to how they were before the previous Government eroded basic rights.

Also, these changes are focused on a small group of truly bad employers who have used that erosion of rights to squeeze their workforce harder.

The vast majority of employers won’t even notice a difference once these laws are enacted. The majority of employers are reasonable people who, despite the law, have been providing decent meal breaks, have a good relationship with staff representatives, and don’t base their business model on cutting wages.

Like almost every other law on our books, employment law is there to deal with the lowest common denominator. And sadly that’s needed.

Just this week the former owner of Christchurch businesses Watershed Bar and Restaurant, and restaurant Sequoia 88 was banned from hiring staff for three years for continual breaches of the law including unlawfully trying to confiscate holiday pay.

On a larger scale we’ve seen AFFCO unlawfully lock workers out from their jobs and their livelihoods.

Any union official can tell you half a dozen horror stories about mistreatment of people at work by ‘frequent flyer’ employers. The kind of business manager or owner who causes disproportionate trouble for working people also eats up far too many union and government hours to clean up their mess.

The thing is, those union delegates and organisers will also tell you they have positive relationships with most employers. For years the average Kiwi business carried on with zero problems complying with the law as it was prior to the last Government’s changes.

That’s what baffles me about some of the more absurd scaremongering over these changes – they’re not representing the views of the majority of business.

The wailing from a few groups claiming to represent all Kiwi business operators makes it look like most employers are opposed to fairness at work, but we know this isn’t the case.

Indeed, they risk maligning many very good employers with the worst elements of the business community which minimum protections are targeted at.

Moreover, these changes aren’t going to make any difference to how that majority of good employers do business already.

Over the last few months since the prospect of improved employment law became a reality, I’ve had businesses actually express to me their desire for better employment law.

That may sound counterintuitive. It turns out that for many New Zealand businesses, a race to the bottom on terms and conditions has been part of a larger race to the bottom for business sustainability.

The common refrain across many established and respected businesses is that they are sick of competing with cowboys and fly-by-night operators who undercut wages and quality, have no long-term stake in the market and ultimately put whole industries at risk.

Put simply good employers – that is, the majority of employers in New Zealand – stand to gain from tightening of the law. They’re already meeting these standards, but will no longer be disadvantaged in the marketplace because they appreciate and invest in their workforce.

Levelling the playing field for good employers with a long-term sustainable vision is a step towards developing a highly-skilled and fairly-paid workforce nationwide.

For those of us who believe in a high-wage, high-productivity future for New Zealand, repairing our employment law makes perfect sense. I’m not surprised that many businesses think so too.

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