90-day trial watered down in employment law changes

Workers will have their right to rest and meal breaks strengthened under the new Government. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The 90-day trial is to be restricted following demands from coalition partner New Zealand First.

Several changes to employment law were announced today by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Workplace Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway.

A narrowing of the 90-day trial period, which allows employers to fire staff within the first three months of starting a job, is the biggest change and will now be restricted to businesses with fewer than 20 employees. Larger employers will still be able to use probationary periods that require them to provide fair reasons to an employee before letting them go.

Labour's pre-election plans were to introduce a recourse for employees who felt they had been fired unfairly under the 90-day scheme, with the creation of a referee service that had a $5000 payout cap.

But that has been scrapped following discussions with New Zealand First

Lees-Galloway said the changes were designed to provide stronger protections for workers, especially vulnerable workers, and boost the role of collective bargaining in the workplace.

“Good employment law strikes a balance between employers and workers. Under the previous Government the balance tipped away from fair working conditions for workers. We will restore that balance.

“This legislation is the first step in the Government’s commitment to creating a highly skilled and innovative economy that provides good jobs, decent work conditions, and fair wages."

Other changes include rollbacks of National initiatives and will see worker's rights to rest and meal breaks restored, except in a select few professions where breaks must be staggered such as air traffic controllers.

The ability to engage in low-level industrial action without reprisal will be returned to workers while unions will also be guaranteed access to the workplace. Employers will also now be required to conclude bargaining unless there was a good reason not to and a restoration of the 30-day rule that required new employees to be covered by a collective agreement in their first month.

Changes made in 2012 to part 6A of the Employment Relations Act, which exempted small and medium businesses from requirements to transfer entitlements of former employees when a business is sold, will be reversed. These 2012 changes came after a huge lobbying campaign by major cleaning company Crest.

Other changes have been given a longer timeframe, including removing the so-called "Hobbit law" that removed the right of film and television workers to collectively bargain and ensuring foreign workers employed by foreign companies in New Zealand had the same protections.

More controversial law changes, such as the proposed Fair Pay agreements, are further off and will require extensive consultation to mitigate blowback from the business community.

Other workplace relations changes already underway include a progressive boost to the minimum wage to $20 by 2021 and consultation on equal pay.