Friday, August 26, 2011

Employment Law and the Election

Apparently today is the first day of the three month 'regulated period' during which political parties are required to spend their own money on electioneering. With a little imagination that makes today a good day to begin commenting on the implications of the election for the future of employment law.

Three years ago all seemed reasonably quiet on the employment front. National's minimal employment policy fitted onto a single, generously spaced, A4 page. Business New Zealand were making much of how change was not required and a period of legal stability was required. Labour had, on employment policy as much else, run out of steam. I was even rash enough to suggest that some broad degree of consensus might have emerged on the structure of employment law. This opinion was based on the fact that the ERA had changed little and that the ECA labour market reforms remained firmly in place. Indeed, from an industrial relations perspective, the ECA changes had been further entrenched.

Rash I might have been, but not stupid. As a good lawyer and an academic I was careful to qualify this view with a few "perhaps" and "it may be"s and so on. While my prediction did look justifiable for a while, it soon became apparent that I had allowed my natural optimism to override my cynical common sense. One likes to think law reform is based on evidence and reasoned opinion. I had of course temporarily overlooked that this is politics where evidence and common sense always take second place to ideology, the prejudice of a party's supporters and short term expediency. Hence of course the 90 day trial periods were quickly extended to all workplaces and s103A amended to favour employers in personal grievance cases to an even greater degree than was previously the case. In what can only have been a purely instinctual kneejerk response, union access to employees was limited.

In the case of all three reforms there was no evidence of any 'mischief' that needed reform. Indeed the law was working perfectly satisfactorily in all cases. That is if you believe that employees are citizens and that they should enjoy basic protections in their employment. Sort of like the owners of businesses, only considerably less! Of course, if you take the view that employees are commodities and disposable, the perspective is different. However in a democracy there should be a balance of rights and the ERA had achieved that, but in a manner that was both cautious and conservative. The New Zealand labour market, since 1991,has been, and remains, one of the least regulated among the OECD countries. In 2008 we had the 4th least restrictive level of employment protection, not that one would know it given the cries of woe from business lobbyists.

This election promises to be more interesting. National's far right and ACT clearly wish to return employment law to their rather strange vision of a 19th century utopia, the mainstream of National seem to base its policy on small town Chamber of Commerce anecdotes, and Labour shows signs of recovering the soul it sold in the 1980s!

All in all it should be interesting and further blogs will emerge when policies are announced.