Opinion: Holiday rules mean you might be working for free today, but the Government doesn't care

OPINION: Labour might call itself the party of workers' rights, but it appears to have little interest in fixing a legal loophole which has seen a growing number of people working extra days essentially for free.

The Holidays Act was written with little regard for people who don't work your standard Monday-Friday week. When a holiday falls during the week, most automatically get it off (if they work they get time-and-a-half, and the ability to take the day off when it suits them). When it falls on a weekend, they can usually take the Monday off instead (or if it's over Christmas and New Year, possibly the Tuesday as well). 

But if a public holiday falls on a day you don't normally work - including when it's been transferred to a Monday or Tuesday - your employer is under no obligation to give you another day off (unless it's specifically written into your contract). 

This month is particularly bad, with people who work Tuesday-Saturday missing out on a long Easter weekend as well as Anzac Day - because it falls on a Sunday this year, it gets Mondayised.

Don't work Sundays or Mondays? Too bad, that's another day you're working for free.

On top of that, the bizarre 'Easter Tuesday' - which sees school students get a day off for no obvious reason - means some parents might have to use annual leave instead of what by rights should be a day off for them.  

One Newshub reader emailed us a couple of weeks back saying their work week - Tuesday-Thursday - had seen them miss out on 11 paid days off in the past year, because they all fell on weekends, Mondays and Fridays. 

But the Government doesn't appear to care. I first queried this with then-Workplace Safety and Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway in 2018, when my work week was Thursday-Monday and Anzac Day fell on a Wednesday. I got no more than an email of "acknowledgement" back - not even a response blaming New Zealand First for the lack of any plans to fix it. 

Asked about these anomalies in March, current Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood's response was woeful. He acknowledged the Act's present wording means "some workers don't receive as many paid public holidays as those who work a traditional Monday to Friday working week", but offered no solution at all - instead saying they could take annual leave.

Whoop-dee-doo. So can everyone else, on top of their extra days of leave, minister. That doesn't solve the problem.

Wood also talked up the new Matariki holiday, which will be celebrated on a Friday - so of no use to anyone who doesn't normally work a Friday, and still not solving the problem that Monday-Friday workers get more days off a year than everyone else. 

Statistics NZ in 2018 reported two-thirds of all people work some non-standard hours every month, a number that's likely only going up. 

Fixing the problem would be simple - the Act already has a 'Tuesdayisation' requirement for when Christmas, Boxing Day and the New Year holidays fall on the weekend which wouldn't be difficult to transfer to other public holidays. 

Even better, what about just making it so if a holiday falls on your usual day off it gets transferred to your next working day, regardless of which Roman or Norse god it's named after? Make it two for Christmas and New Year.

The Government's Holidays Act Taskforce had another solution - any public holidays you missed out on due to working non-standard hours would be added to your leave entitlement, the number depending how many days a week you worked up to a maximum of 11 (presumably 12 from 2022 when Matariki is in place). 

For example, if you work five days a week but only got nine public holidays, you'd get two tacked on to your annual leave; if you work three days a week and missed them all, you'd get seven back. 

Michael Wood.
Michael Wood. Photo credit: The AM Show

While the Government in February said it would accept all the taskforce's recommendations, the taskforce stopped short of recommending this solution because it "would add complexity and cost for employers". 

Give me a break. For a party that calls itself a representative of the country's working people, it should have been a no-brainer. The current system is complex enough already, giving people their rights shouldn't be seen as such as burden. And they can't even blame New Zealand First.

Speaking of the taskforce, Labour pushed ahead with making Matariki a public holiday, despite an economic cost of about $400 million according to the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment and the task force saying it couldn't come to consensus on whether it'd be a good idea.

Guess that's more of a vote-winner though. 

Dan Satherley is a senior Newshub digital reporter.