Employment law is something a lot of people do not understand. The wad of A4 paper stapled together with a mass of writing that everyone should get when they accept a new job is more than just a wad of paper. It is a common understanding between a person and their employer about the hours the employee will work, the conditions of their work such as annual leave and their statutory holidays, breaks the employee is entitled to and so forth. When a person is given their copy of the contract they are expected to take it home and read it through before signing both copies and getting the employer to counter sign it to show they acknowledge the employee has entered into it.
New Zealand has international obligations to meet under statutes that we have signed up to or ratified. Among others New Zealand and other western nations have agreed to ban slavery. This is certainly not new, but it is important to note as not all countries, despite their said commitments, have banned slavery-like practices and unfortunately New Zealand has regressed in recent years. The fact that fishing vessels operating out of New Zealand ports with crews working in conditions that would see a New Zealand employer heavily fined or possibly even sent to jail are still able to do so, suggests that these vessels are upholding New Zealand’s reputation as being the “Wild West” of the high seas.
But I would like to acknowledge progress is being made on an issue that should never have arisen in the first place. The idea of zero hour contracts where an employee might be on call to work random hours by an employer with no obligation to provide work has been much criticized as a grossly unfair type of contract. It was common in the fast food industry until strike action by unionized McDonalds employees brought attention to bear on them. Among the employers to since agree to abandon zero hour contracts include McDonalds, after unionized members went on strike. More recently the Minister for Labour Michael Woodhouse has announced that zero hour contracts will be banned.
But there is still much work to be done. Although New Zealand compares favourably to other western nations such as the United States when it comes to minimum wage issues and maternity leave for women, it does not do so well when protecting migrant workers from exploitation. A number of court cases have found in favour of staff in the hospitality industry, who have claimed mistreatment, being unpaid, being denied holidays and holiday pay and unjustifiable dismissal. Although these problems are certainly not unique to New Zealand, and all nations will have a hard core few employers who absolutely refuse to abide by employment law, our emphasis on being a nation that gives everyone a fair go is on trial.