Forgotten labour-hire bill resurrected

Industries in New Zealand such as construction and catering have been increasingly relying on labour hire firms. Photo: Getty

A Labour bill that has been languishing for more than a decade will finally be resuscitated. Shane Cowlishaw reports.

After more than ten years a private member's bill to stop the exploitation of temporary workers will be introduced to Parliament.

The Employment Relations (Triangular Employment) Amendment Bill would allow people employed by a labour-hire company to take a personal grievance against the secondary employer they are subcontracted out to.

It would also grant those workers the ability to join a collective agreement if one was available.

The bill has its genesis in 2007 when former Labour MP Darien Fenton travelled to the UK on a parliamentary trip for first-termers.

While there, she caught up with her counterpart in the British government who mentioned he was grappling with a growing problem of exploited workers employed by labour-hire firms.

After returning to New Zealand, Fenton began talking to unions and employees and realised some were heading to the workplace with no rights at all.

She drafted the bill and Trevor Mallard, the Labour Minister at the time, was planning to push it through but the 2008 election loss halted plans.

National Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson quickly killed-off the legislative change and since then it has sat, undrawn, in the biscuit tin.

Now, another new Labour MP Kieran McAnulty, who adopted the bill, will finally introduce it to the house after it was drawn in February.

Fenton is pleased to see her work dusted off and said it was more important than ever after a rapid increase in temporary workers in industries such as construction.

“Ten years later and of course labour hire and temporary work has exploded in New Zealand in all sorts of forms. I think what will be interesting at the select committee, because I think it will get there, is there’s a raft of examples now.”

McAnulty has plenty of those examples on hand and said many of them are shocking.

While there were legitimate labour-hire firms and 'temp agencies" supplying workers for short-term and seasonal needs, some were unscrupulous and happy to assist secondary employers to reduce their permanent workforce by providing workers that were on less money and worse conditions than those working alongside them.

“One example is a woman who had been working, via a labour-hire company on assignment on one particular site for a number of years, (who) found out she was pregnant and was let go from that site the next day.

“First Union have told us due to the nature of labour-hire companies that need to find a lot of information out about people on their books they’ve had some employers sit down and essentially say ‘we don’t want women of childbearing age, we don’t want Pacific Islanders and we don’t want any gays’. That behaviour is just unacceptable in this country.”

The bill will almost certainly pass to the select committee stage. It’s understood to have the support it needs, crucially including New Zealand First.

Michael Woodhouse, National’s workplace relations spokesperson, said the party was unlikely to support the bill.

What happens if it does make it to select committee is another story.

McAnulty said he is aware there were concerns from the labour-hire industry about its wording and how it could negatively affect good companies that were playing fair.

But getting the bill through its first reading would allow those issues to be thrashed out and a solution found, he said.

“I’m not emotionally attached to the particular wording of the bill but I have become emotionally attached to the issue.”

Whatever happens, wider reform of the labour sector is on its way.

The minimum wage will rise, while pay equity and industry-wide fair pay agreements are also being developed by Minister Iain Lees-Galloway.

Beefed-up protection for contractors is also likely, as the Government moves to address a rapidly evolving workplace.

Fenton, who now works for the Meatworkers Union, said this unprecedented change would be a tough test for her former colleagues.

“The challenge for Government now is to think about the changing nature of work and how you accommodate it under labour law … the good old 40-hour working week is almost a thing of the past for a lot of people,” she said.