Fair Pay Agreements: Canterbury business leader Leeann Watson, CTU boss Richard Wagstaff clash over what they will mean for workers and businesses

A debate about how to get more money in workers' pockets is raging on in the wake of the Fair Pay Agreement (FPA) Bill sailing through its first reading in Parliament. 

The Bill promises to give employees more bargaining power. FPAs are a set of terms of conditions - including wages and working hours - that employers in a particular sector must abide by with the overall aim of raising standards.

Unions are celebrating the move - saying it's been met with a round of applause from low-paid workers.

"The design of this is all about lifting wages for those stuck in a low wage spiral," Council of Trade Unions president Richard Wagstaff told AM on Wednesday.

But the Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce has warned the Bill could make life extremely difficult for companies. Chief executive Leeann Watson said the best way to get workers more money was to allow business growth.

"We are opposed to the Fair Pay Agreements. We believe that this Bill will take employment legislation back to the 1970s - it strips away the rights of both employers and employees to negotiate pay conditions for those circumstances that suit both employees and employers.

"It does nothing to lift productivity and innovation and to drive our economy forward, which is what the Government should be focussing on."

Her comments echo those by ACT Party leader David Seymour, who branded FPAs a "relic of the 1970s".

Watson also believed FPAs would eliminate flexibility.

"There is no differentiation between a small business who, say, employs 10 staff - having to match the same pay and conditions as a large business employing 500 staff," she told AM.

"That's really challenging, given New Zealand is made up of small businesses. This will have a significant impact across New Zealand's small business community."

Wagstaff disagreed, saying FPAs were a win/win for employees and employers alike.

"What will happen is, instead of workers being pitted against each other for lower and lower rates, they will basically say, 'In this industry, for this kind of worker… you can't negotiate less than this floor," he said.

"[It's] a bit like the minimum wage but actually designed for a whole industry."
Wagstaff also denied unions would benefit financially from FPAs.

"What [unions] will be doing is representing all workers but they'll only be collecting fees from their members - so all workers will benefit from this…  but there'll be no compulsion whatsoever for those members to pay any money to their union."

The Labour Government has said FPAs would improve productivity and create better working conditions.