IN COMMITTEE Delivering Wilson’s Baby

If Minister, or anyone else for that matter, wants to know how much heat Bill is generating in the commercial world, then he or she need do no more than check on how many commercial organisations are making submissions to the select committee considering it. Some may like to think that many submissions means that the business community is taking healthy interest in the democratic process. The reality is, that while some people come out in support of Bills they favour, the big numbers turn out when people are good and mad about what is being proposed.
As Bills go, few in recent times have generated the depths of concern that are being expressed over the Employment Relations Law Reform Bill. The Bill is basically the Government’s attempt to spell out the provisions of the Employment Relations Act which was, of course, Labour’s riposte to the former National government’s Employment Relations Act (which effectively deregulated New Zealand’s labour market). The Employment Relations Act famously requires “good faith bargaining”. The problem, right from the beginning, was encapsulated in the simple question: “how do you legislate for good faith?” “God only knows,” was the reasonable response.
The Transport and Industrial Relations Committee heard no less than 39 submissions (many of them collective) in just two days in Wellington early last month. And while some were in favour, most notably those from union groups, the majority of those who turned up were there to roast the proposed legislation. The matters that had submitters turning up the heat on the Government included:
* The provisions which require those who purchase or merge with company to offer existing employees the same terms and conditions that originally applied; with submitters pointing out that unsustainable employment relationships could well be the reason why the company was on the market in the first place.
* The degree that the Bill expresses preference for collective over individual agreements; particularly the requirement to conclude collective agreement once negotiation has commenced, it being argued that this would lead to disputes becoming more prolonged and unreasonable, as the ability of the employer to “leave the table” is vague; and
* The requirement to disclose commercial information to staff on occasion of sale of business, merger or restructuring, as this could lead to confidential information passing to competitors and loss of valuable staff, and that this may lead to staff having equal or greater rights than the equity holder.
Among those who had their say were the: Employers and Manufacturers Association, Motor Trade Association, Landcorp Farming, Pan Pac Forest Products, Real Estate Institute, Tourism Industry Association, Woolyarns, Buddle Findlay, Turnaround Management Association NZ, ANZCO Foods, Fairfax NZ, NZ Fruitgrowers Federation, NZ Orchard and Vineyard Association, NZ Vegetable and Potato Growers Federation, NZ Berryfruit Growers Federation, Bernard Matthews NZ, Heinz Wattie’s, Richmond, Wellington Regional Chamber of Commerce, Insurance Council of NZ, Institute of Chartered Accountants, Simpson Grierson Employment Law Group, and the Aviation Industry Association.
The question now is exactly how much notice the select committee and the responsible Minister will take of business’ views. The Minister now responsible for delivering the Bill is Paul Swain. He cannot, however, be entirely blamed for what many see as Bill that was misconceived from the outset. The Bill is the brainchild of Margaret Wilson, fertilised when she held the Labour portfolio. Swain was left holding the baby when Helen Clark shuffled her cabinet line-up, in an attempt to shore up the Government’s defences, in the wake of Don Brash’s Orewa speech and the Coalition’s subsequent slide in the polls.
Clark correctly judged that Margaret Wilson’s style was not entirely appealing to business and made the call that Swain would be an acceptable replacement. Whether the latter proves to be true or not will depend, in large measure, upon how he handles the Employment Relations Law Reform Bill when it emerges from select committee, which should be any day now bearing in mind this column was written in early June. The picking is that, having seen the report back, Swain will introduce Supplementary order Paper which tones down the Bill’s more onerous provisions.

Julie Collier is editor and publisher of Select Committee News.

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