Employment tweaks could endanger all aboard

The seas could become a dangerous place for both staff and passengers if employment law changes are adopted, a shipping lobby group says.

The Government’s Employment Relations Amendment Bill proposes a number of changes, including restricting 90-day trials, and strengthening collective bargaining and union rights.

Depending on who you listen to, the shake-up will either restore power to workers or disrupt business and damage industries.

But Annabel Young, executive director of the New Zealand Shipping Federation, told the Education and Workforce Select Committee she was particularly concerned about staff being reinstated to their positions where it was inappropriate.

Under the bill, reinstatement will become the primary remedy in personal grievance cases.

Young said laws did not often consider life at sea and the unique challenges they posed.

“A ship is a very hierarchical place and the master is in charge and what the master says has to go.”

Any situation where this authority was challenged was extremely serious and could lead to safety risks for passengers, staff, and the person themselves, she said.

"There’s a culture at sea which is a family culture, things sort themselves out.”

A ship’s crew was like a family and if someone was not wanted on board, their experience would not be pleasant.

“If someone is not physically up to it because they’ve got a drug problem, they’re not up to it because they’re not well or they’re just too angry to do what they’re told that impacts on the safety of everyone on that ship.

“It could be dangerous for people on the vessel, in the case of the Cook Strait ferries the passenger, it could be dangerous for the crew, it could be dangerous for the individual involved. There’s a culture at sea which is a family culture, things sort themselves out.”

Young also raised the spectre of maritime strikes, something that she said had not happened on a large scale since the 1980s.

Since the Cook Strait “highway” was crippled by industrial action relationships had been repaired and conditions were good.

“That could be disrupted quite quickly if there is some attempt to change radically all the agreements that have been sorted out over time,” she said.

The Maritime Union, however, dampened down the likelihood of strike action returning to the water.

National Secretary Joe Fleetwood told Newsroom there was nothing in the bill that would make that more likely to occur.

“People say 'oh if Labour gets in everyone’s going to go on strike' … well nine years, three terms, of National Party and we didn’t strike.

“Anyone who is looking at going on strike doesn’t worry who the f**k the government is, at the end of the day you’re going on strike because you’ve had enough.”

He was also supportive of the restoration of reinstatement as the primary remedy, saying it had worked fine before it was scrapped in 2011.

Staff who won their job back were usually welcomed by colleagues, but if there were safety issues they would soon be sorted out by the crew, he said.

Workplace Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway was amused by both of Young’s worries, letting out a hearty guffaw when asked whether we could see a return to maritime strikes.

“There’s nothing in that legislation that creates more opportunities for industrial action. Look, that’s fantasy stuff.”

He was also dubious about the dangers facing workers who were reinstated to their position, which he said would not be compulsory measure.

“I really think they’re getting a little carried away, to be honest. What we’re introducing is reinstatement as the first option, but if reinstatement is not a realistic option there will be other remedies.”

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