Labour approach testing employment waters

The Labour-led Government appears to be testing the waters with a new approach to employment relations. Teuila Fuatai looks at what could be coming up for employers, unions and everyone in-between.

It’s more than just pay for actors and women workers under the microscope.

In fact, according to labour relations experts, it seems New Zealand is testing, or rather re-testing, the way forward for dealing with mass employment challenges.

Most recently highlighted through the formation of the Film Industry working group – which has been tasked with finding a way to balance the demands of the film industry, with that of the rights of local workers – working or discussion groups seem to be coming back in vogue.

The Film Industry group, which consists of 13 members representing different parts and interests in the industry, followed the (re)convening of another working group in January looking at pay equity legislation. While the motivation for establishing each respective group may have differed, a lot of discussion has focused on how a wider, and arguably more robust consultation period, could ultimately lead to longer-lasting and more acceptable employment laws and standards.

Pam Nuttall, employment law specialist and senior law lecturer at the Auckland University of Technology, was particularly interested in the potential impacts of the “hobbit law” working group.

When discussing its potential impact, Nuttall compared it to the care and support worker equal pay settlement announced last April [2017]. 

“The pay equity working group did good work but its existence was forced upon the Government by a decision in the Supreme Court.”

The settlement, estimated at the time to directly affect about 55,000 workers, followed 20 months of negotiations between Government officials and union representatives over fair pay and working conditions for relevant workers, as well as multiple court attempts by rest home company Terranova to stop the initial worker fair pay claim case.  

We think there’s real opportunity to create other industry standards for other occupations that keep having their salaries dragged down by raw competition between employers.

- NZCTU's Richard Wagstaff

While the settlement that resulted from home and support worker negotiations guaranteed – among other occupation-specific minimum standards – wage rises, it was immediately followed by the introduction of proposed legislation that has "severely hampered” the ability of other women to lodge pay equity claims, Nuttall said.

“However, the Film Industry working group has been convened as an alternative to the Government imposing a legislative outcome on the industry, so let’s hope it will provide a process to implement a constructive intent to improve industrial relations across the board.”

Nuttall’s observations are not that far off the mark from comments made by Workplace relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway after the announcement of the hobbit-law working group at the end of last month January. 

Improving the law would lead to better conditions for screen industry workers, but the findings of the working group could also influence the Government’s wider body of work around industry minimum standards and collective bargaining for contractors, Lees-Galloway said.

Richard Wagstaff, president of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, believed working groups involving Government, employer and workers’ representatives, would be particularly useful in negotiating industry standards where workers were unable to bargain collectively, and union representation was low.

Importantly, the current appetite among law makers for “tripartisan” consultations – those involving Government, employer and unions - indicate that's probably the direction things are heading in, he said. 

“There is already an established forum in the health sector – The Health Sector Relationship agreement – which is a tripartite forum that has been going for 15 years now, and this Government has expressed strong support for it,” Wagstaff said.

[Industry minimum standards] need definition and context - what is suitable in one place may not be in another.

-Kim Campbell of the EMA

As a member of the Film Industry working group, he did not want to comment on potential changes to legislation impacting film workers directly, but pointed to the kind of direction that unions would be pushing for under a more inclusive, working-group, approach to industry disputes.

“You can’t employ a care and support worker now on less than that [pay equity agreement]. Now we have those monetary standards….we think there’s real opportunity to create other industry standards for other occupations that keep having their salaries dragged down by raw competition between employers.”

Kim Campbell, chief executive of the Employers and Manufacturers Association, told Newsroom while his members disagreed with the stance the unions had taken during the hobbit law stoush, moving towards a more working group-orientated model when considering employment standards for different occupations and industries could work well in the long-run.

“[Industry minimum standards] need definition and context – what is suitable in one place may not be in another," he said. 

"While it doesn’t help when people come out with a whole lot of stated positions on things….there are certain things and principles that we think really need to be thought about and preserved, and that is the ability for the New Zealand economy to be flexible and respond to the incredibly fast changes that are coming from technology.”

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