by Tony Stevens

I hope that the government makes some significant changes to employment legislation in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown.

The egregious power imbalance of the employment relations framework in New Zealand has been exposed on a widescale as a result of this phenomenon.

For employee advocates like me we already knew these problems existed, but the coronavirus presents an opportunity to implement changes that will make things fairer for the majority of New Zealanders, who are working people.

Here are a few changes I think the government must make:

Statutory redundancy entitlements

When a worker is made redundant in New Zealand they have no automatic entitlement to a pay-out, regardless of whether they have served the company for 6 months or 6 years.

Workers can and have had their employment terminated, so long as there is a bonafide business reason, but they have no right to a pay-out that recognises their service, or the hardship they will face through no fault of their own.

New Zealand is one of the only developed countries left that doesn’t have a statutory redundancy entitlement. This needs to change.

A legislated living wage

The recent minimum wage increase is a good start but we need to go a lot further if we are going to enable working people in New Zealand to flourish. Too many of us are paid the minimum or thereabouts and that is still not enough to prosper in this country. It’s evident that many employers will pay as little as they can get away with, so we need to have a wage floor that gives Kiwis the opportunity to not just survive, but thrive.

Guaranteed hours of work

Legislation was passed in 2016 designed to eliminate Zero Hour Contracts. It has not. The Employment Relations Act now says that if an employer and employee agree to set hours of work those hours must be recorded in the employment agreement. The problem is that some employers are not agreeing to set hours of work and deciding that they therefore don’t have to include a minimum.

The wording in the act is vague and employers are taking advantage of this to retain flexibility. The government should tidy up the wording to say that employers MUST provide a guaranteed minimum number of hours unless they are offering a TRUE casual position, which is basically an on-call, as needed/if available role.

Guidance on casual vs permanent work patterns

Casual working arrangements are abused by employers. Many companies have casual workers on the books but have them working regular hours and fixed patterns – without the job security that a permanent role affords. Casual work is meant to be an intermittent role with no patterns of hours, but bosses are getting workers to sign casual contracts and then expecting them to work the same hours as permanent staff. This isn’t fair because companies have no obligation to provide hours to workers and can pull the rug out from underneath them at any time. This has been happening all over the place during the lockdown as employers seek to reduce their overheads and young workers in particular are being affected badly.

Casuals can attempt to prove they should be permanent by pointing to established patterns of work, but this can be hard to do. This affects who can receive the wage subsidy too, because casuals will have to prove they are actually permanent unless they have a decent boss who does the right thing. This is a difficult thing to do at a difficult time. Labour inspectors say eight weeks is a helpful period but there is no threshold laid out in the legislation nor is this well communicated. Let’s clear that up.

Harsher penalties for wage theft

Personally, I want wage theft to be a criminal offense. It is stealing. Simple as that. Employers who underpay workers either their wages or their entitlements are thieves and should be punished as such. This could look like large financial penalties, stand-downs from business ventures for serious offenders, and jail time for the worst culprits. This would also act as an incentive for employers to comply with the law, and non-compliance is currently a significant problem.

Fair Pay Agreements

Let’s hurry up and legislate Fair Pay Agreements so working people can set industry standards for their conditions by bargaining across entire sectors. This will benefit everyone and give workers more of a say in their working conditions.

What other changes do you think the government should make?

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