Recently the Government has announced its intention to make changes to a number of areas of employment law, including approving the changes it proposed in its pre-election manifesto.  

The National Government has followed up on its pre-election manifesto by passing the following changes through Cabinet:

  • removing the current requirement to conclude a collective agreement unless there are genuine reasons not to, while retaining the requirement to bargain in good faith;
  • allowing employers to opt out of multi-employer collective bargaining before negotiations for a multi-employer collective agreement begin;
  • allowing for partial pay reductions in cases of partial strike action; and
  • removing the 30-day rule where workers are covered by the applicable collective agreement before deciding whether to join the union.  

In addition to these changes, the Government has announced one further change which was not included in its pre-election campaign - to align the time frame set for unions and employers to initiate collective bargaining. Currently, a union can initiate bargaining no earlier than 60 days before a collective agreement expires, but an employer cannot initiate bargaining any earlier than 40 days before the collective agreement expires.

The Government was concerned that this head-start created an imbalance in bargaining, and has announced that the same period of time to initiate bargaining will be set for both employers and unions. It is not yet known what period of time will be chosen.

While some may think that these changes are a result of the Ports of Auckland and AFFCO disputes, the changes were announced as part of National's pre-election policies before there was any awareness of these disputes. It's thought that the changes continue the gradual reform of employment law the Government has undertaken since being elected in 2008 and will be welcomed by employers looking for stability and certainty in how they deal with a union in collective bargaining.

It is intended that the changes will go before Parliament sometime this year and public submissions will be called for after that.

For further information on these changes, please see the FYI we published following the 2011 election about National's employment relations policy here.

A review of flexible working arrangements

Another of National's pre-election employment promises was to improve flexible working arrangements. At the time, a review was being undertaken into the current flexible working arrangements and any changes would result from the findings of that review.

The findings of the review show strong support for extending the right to ask for flexible working arrangements to all employees, as opposed to only those who are caregivers. The review also supports raising the awareness of Part 6AA, as most requests for flexible work arrangements currently take place without any recourse to Part 6AA.

Changes to flexible working arrangements are expected to come into effect later this year.

Reform of the Privacy Act

The Government has announced that it will repeal and re-enact the Privacy Act 1993. The Act has now been in place for almost 20 years and the Law Commission has recommended it be updated to reflect the huge changes to technology and information-sharing that have occurred during that time.

Further announcements regarding specific policy proposals will be made later this year.

Passing of the Secret Ballot Bill

A new Bill has been passed that will make it compulsory for unions to use secret ballots when workers vote whether to strike. In practice, most unions already hold secret ballots, but this Bill will ensure a consistent approach. The Bill also intends the change to provide protection for any workers who may feel judged by colleagues or intimidated by a voting process that does not use secret ballots.

The Minister of Labour has said that there will be a two year transition period, but she expects all unions to move to secret ballots as soon as practicable.

Employees' safety receives extra funding

The Minister of Labour has announced that an independent taskforce will conduct a full review of New Zealand's health and safety system this year. The review will look into how health and safety in New Zealand workplaces can be improved with the aim of reducing the amount of deaths and serious injuries by 25% by 2020.

The Minister of Labour also announced that workplace health and safety will receive a $37 million cash injection over the next four years. The increase in funding means the number of health and safety inspectors will increase by 20% over three years to bring the total number to 180.

At this stage, the timeframe for the independent taskforce is not known, but it is expected that the taskforce will report back to the Minister by the end of this year. The taskforce will ask for ideas and opinions from employers on how to improve health and safety in the workplace.

If you have any ideas that you would like to put forward, or would like advice on how to improve health and safety at your workplace, our team would be happy to assist.

We will keep you updated but, in the meantime, if you would like more information on any of these developments, please let us know.