Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Ross Wilson: National plans to give bosses licence to sack

New Zealand workers got a taste last month of what a National government might have dealt to them had it been elected last September. A member's bill introduced by the National Party would enable employers to sack workers without reason and remove personal grievance rights for all workers in their first 90 days on the job.

National's Wayne Mapp is calling this the Employment Relations (Probationary Employment) Amendment Bill. This is disingenuous. It is a complete removal of any employment rights for the first 90 days, not a genuine, agreed probationary period between an employer and employee as the Employment Relations Act already provides.

If the bill passes, employers will be able to dismiss employees for any reason they choose - they need not provide any basis or reason for their decision.

Regardless of how well an employee is performing or how much effort is put in, if the bill becomes law, an employer will be able to terminate his or her employment at any stage in the first three months.

National's bill is truly the thin end of the wedge. Given the chance, National would also do away with the highly successful network of workplace health and safety reps, throw up the fourth week of annual leave for negotiation, and abolish time-and-a-half for working on public holidays.

The 90 days bill is totally unjustified. Employers can already employ people on a casual basis. They can already employ people for a fixed term. And they can already start someone on a probationary period, provided it is conducted and terminated fairly.

The Employment Relations Act already provides for all of these things, and all National is doing is giving employers a free pass to sack workers at will.

National's approach to employment is a stark contrast to the system we have. It is no coincidence that the Employment Relations Act has coincided with the strongest economic growth and the lowest unemployment in the OECD, and for the second year in a row the World Bank ranked New Zealand top out of 155 countries for ease of doing business.

Companies are continuing to enjoy good profits, and despite a slowdown in the economy, the labour market is predicted to remain tight for the foreseeable future.

Unions argue for an investment approach - in skills and training, in capital, in sound health and safety procedures - to move our country to a high-wage, high-value economy.

The National bill is a direct challenge to this approach. It is a strategy that failed the New Zealand economy in the 1990s and would fail it again now. The key issue facing the labour market right now is how to attract workers with skills, not how to sack them.

Workers have, on average, about six job changes in their lives. So six times in a lifetime, the average worker would be denied their employment rights, as we would all be turned into casual workers for 90 days.

Why would workers take the risk of a new job when they knew that they would be without employment rights for the first three months? The National bill will add to labour market rigidity, not ease it.

The National Party has introduced this bill saying that the removal of personal grievance procedures for new employees will encourage employment growth. But unemployment has gone down substantially in the past 10 years without such a provision.

It is mischievous and untrue for the National Party to use this as a reason for the introduction of this bill.

The bill is a major attack on the rights of all workers. It removes basic employment rights for every worker in our society.

Although this bill would particularly affect short-term, casual and seasonal workers it would apply to every single one of us each time we started a new job.

National's bill is not conducive to building positive and trusting employment relationships in the workplace but instead would create a climate of fear and suspicion.

We certainly hope that the select committee, presented with the evidence, will see fit to reject this bill, as it adds nothing to our workplace relations.

* Ross Wilson is President of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions.

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