Workplace Relations Minister Brooke van Velden reveals plans to make changes to Holiday Act, health and safety reform

Workplace Relations Minister Brooke van Velden has revealed her priorities for her portfolio this term, including making changes to our Holiday Act and reform on health and safety law and regulations.

Van Velden, the ACT Party deputy leader, shared her priorities with the Auckland Business Chamber on Tuesday, saying she was "committed to cutting the red tape and regulations that are stopping both businesses and employees from realising their full potential".

It comes after the Government's move to abolish Fair Pay Agreements and expand the availability of 90-day trials.

Van Velden criticised the previous Government for increasing minimum wage faster than inflation, introducing Matariki as a new public holiday and introducing more sick leave for employees.

"The frustrations both employers and workers are facing are connected. Labour market regulations are becoming increasingly complex, making it harder for employers and workers to reach solutions that work for both of them," she said.

Holiday Act

Van Veldon announced a top priority was making changes to the Holidays Act.

"The problems with the Holidays Act have been experienced so widely, most employers would have found themselves non-compliant at some point in time," she said.

"Workers suffer because it is difficult to be sure they are actually receiving their statutory entitlements and many have suffered years of underpayment.

"Businesses suffer because the processes and calculations of the Holidays Act are so complex many employers struggle to understand their legal obligations and even with the best intentions, have found themselves non-compliant.

"And the taxpayer suffers, because it's not only the private sector that has struggled to get things right. Even MBIE is part of the long list of employers who have been tripped up by the Act. The irony is not lost on me."

Holidays Act 2003 compliance issues meant some workers had incorrectly calculated holidays and leave.

Health New Zealand's remediation payments alone affected an estimated 270,000 employees, who were owed an "eye-watering" $2.23 billion, van Velden said.

"I understand that change has been a long time coming and there will be many in this room who are sick of undelivered promises. The previous Government's Holidays Act taskforce began work in 2018 but were not able to deliver on changes by the end of their term in Government.

"One of the reasons it has taken so long to deliver change is that the previous Government's proposed changes were so complex, it has taken years to move from policy decisions to getting draft legislation. If the policy is difficult to draft, chances are businesses would have a tough time implementing it too.

"I am also committed to getting feedback from the stakeholders who will eventually have to work with the Act. We need the Act to be workable for everyone, from the multi-national corporates to the small-town family-run restaurants."

Van Velden said further information, including how to provide feedback, would be revealed in the coming months.

Health and safety

She also said a top priority she was "most excited about" for this portfolio was on the ACT-National coalition agreement to reform health and safety law and regulations.

"Businesses want to keep people safe and healthy at work but one of the things I hear consistently is that businesses just don't know what to do in order to comply. Small businesses in particular are pulled in so many directions and urgently need this clarity as far as possible.

"Workers too, need to know what their employers, and they themselves, are required to do to keep them safe."

The Health and Safety at Work Act is coming up 10 years old.

Van Velden said it was an appropriate time to assess whether it was fit for purpose.

"I want us to get back to basics and ask New Zealanders what is the purpose of health and safety regulation, how should risk and costs be allocated, what's working and what needs to change?

"We need our health and safety system to be clear, to be understandable, and to be effective. I want our system to make sure businesses are focused on addressing the things that are causing workers harm and not on compliance that serves no purpose."

Van Velden said this work will start with public consultation, with more details being released in the coming months.

"I am confident that this Government will deliver positive change that provides certainty and confidence for a thriving economy."

Opposition and union response

However, Labour workplace relations and safety spokesperson and Camilla Belich said van Velden's priorities "could result in the loss of basic statutory rights and rules that keep people safe at work".

"ACT policy would allow all employers to be able to reclassify employees as contractors at a whim, meaning they don’t have the same sick leave, holiday pay, parental leave, etc. It also means they can effectively fire at will, even beyond 90 day trial periods," Belich said in a statement.

"It is also concerning that the minister wants to remove regulations that have helped keep people safe at work.

"ACT's coalition partners need to make sure they are not turning a blind eye to changes that will make work harder, more dangerous and unstable for most Kiwis."

FIRST Union general secretary Dennis Maga told Newshub he was concerned about the changes.

"These are extremely hardline libertarian policies that would strip away the most foundational employment rights from New Zealand workers and empower employers to basically do whatever they like with no one able to legally challenge them," he said.

"These ideas were created by someone incredibly detached from the reality of life on minimum wage. You get the sense that Minister van Velden's only engagement with low-paid workers is when they bring her a coffee or deliver something to her.

"The ACT Party has been hellbent on breaking the employee/employer relationship and liberalising contracting arrangements, which is similar to how many 'third world' countries operate, where workers are not typically considered employees and can be easily terminated or exploited by employers because of the lack of a legal framework to challenge their employment status.

"The cumulative effect of these policies would be a huge transfer of power and wealth from workers to employers, and the economic and social annihilation of our working class."

Maga said the right to paid holiday leave was not achieved without a fight and it will not go away without one.

"We look forward to the promised 'consultation' with unions on behalf of hundreds of thousands of workers from across the motu."