The balancing act of workplace relations

29 Mar 2018

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There has been significant maturing on New Zealand’s labour law in recent years. The current legislation set about to achieve a greater degree of co-operation, trust, and fairness between employers and employees in the workplace. This seems to have worked, as there have been relatively few employment disputes that ended in strike action over the last few years. This is particularly important for small-to-medium businesses, the backbone of this country’s economy, and some of most important contributors to our current prosperity. 

Low unemployment is challenging many businesses, making it difficult to find skilled and reliable staff. To attract staff, conditions and wages are being increased in many industries, and horticulture is no exception to this. So what we have is economic prosperity and wealth being shared, ending in social and cultural benefits. In all cases this is a win-win, as both the country and its people are the beneficiaries. 

So why would you want to change this situation? 

If you did not agree with my assessment, or could point to some examples where there needs to be attention, let’s sort out those problems by focusing specifically on them. But to reset the labour relations legal framework across the board would appear to be counter-productive. As it stands, there is an amendment proposed to New Zealand labour law (the Employment Relations Amendment), with submissions to close on 30 March 2018. The intent of the Bill is to ensure key minimum standards and protections for employees, to introduce greater fairness in the workplace between employees and employers, all in order to promote productive employment relationships. 

What I am concerned about is any employment law measures that do enable workplace productivity and enable flexible working conditions; for our small businesses, good workplace relations and flexible employment conditions are vital for their ongoing success. To achieve this, many employers are offering work and nurturing New Zealanders into a long term careers and, as skills grow, these workers are compensated accordingly. Any provisions that restrict employers’ ability to offer different conditions of employment may well be detrimental to such programmes’ continuation, and this amendment is a comprehensive change to New Zealand labour law. 

For example, making small to medium businesses required to help fund union activities and require new workers to join unions will not be conducive to productivity. I have no objection to workers belonging to unions and having reasonable opportunities to do so, but I believe that this should not be at the expense of the employers’ ability to continue to trade effectively. Similarly, any collective bargaining provisions should recognise that there are a multitude of employment situations.

I am concerned that the combined effect of these proposals will increase complexity, impose additional processes and costs, slow responses to business pressure and the demands of nature, and inhibit economic growth. If these provisions become law, I am also concerned that the progress made in recent years will be lost, productivity fall back and New Zealand will turn back from being a high performing, high wage economy. 

I agree with moving to improve conditions, and firmly believe that it is important for employment law in New Zealand to strike an appropriate balance between meeting the rights of workers and enabling businesses to grow and prosper. Moving to a comprehensive but simple to follow and productivity-enhancing regime are, I think, the best goals for labour law legislation.

- Mike Chapman, CEO