Saturday, July 31, 2010

Consultation or Dicat: Different Approaches to Labour Law Reform

While mulling over a more detailed response to National's reforms, on which I will blog over the next few weeks, it has been interesting to contrast the very different approach to labour law reform taken by National and Labour. Older readers will recall the detailed and lengthy consultation process that preceded Labour's Labour Relations Act 1987 (as I recall a Green paper and submissions and then a white paper and more submissions before an Act was introduced and then the ususal Select Committee process).

In a paper that forms part of Erling Rasmussen's (ed) Employment Relationships: New Zealand's Employment Relations Act Margaret Wilson has detailed the comprehensive consultation process with all relevant groups that took place before the introduction of the Employment Relations Act 2000. This Act was notable for the limited nature of its reforms and its caution in introducing measures that might be damaging to business. In both cases Labour was open about its intentions, took care to ensure that both workers and business were consulted, that their respective interests were considered, and that the resulting legislation was genuinely pluralist in character.

By contrast National has been and remains completely unitarist. In its view of labour law there is only one side whose interests deserve consideration even if political realism may constrain that interest being pursued to too much of an extreme. National prefers to work behind closed doors and to consult only its own supporters and their lobby groups. In 1990 National had signalled the direction of its changes but the magnitude of those changes was unexpected. The policy and the legislative scheme was largely drafted in secret behind closed doors and workers and their representatives were excluded from this process. The process at the second and subsequent reading stages was particularly appalling. A significantly amended Bill was pushed through under urgency with few if any copies of the changes available either to the opposition or the public until the Bill was well through the parliamentary process. One result was that probably a third of New Zealand employees woke to find that they were covered by legislation on which they had not been consulted and had no opportunity to comment. It will be recalled that workers outside the award system only found they were to be covered by the ECA during the second reading.

National's record in 2010 is even worse. At least in 1991 National were reasonably honest about their intentions. By contrast, in 2008 its election manifesto proposed only minimal changes to employment law. This position has been repeated on several occasions. As we now know, this disinformation campaign was concealing a different game. In the dark corridors of power and in rooms that would have been previously smoke filled National was developing reforms intended to allow it to come as close as possible to pushing an agenda that appears to have changed little from the days of the ECA. It is an agenda that treats over 2 million New Zealanders as commodities and it is an agenda that makes it increasingly clear that those New Zealanders, whatever the HRM propaganda of their employers or however many statements that "our employees are our most important assets", will find that the cold legal reality is that security in their employment will diminish and that their economic well being will be increasingly subject to the arbitrary and unchallengeable decisions of their employer.

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