Tea breaks gone by lunchtime? 'Absolutely not'

  • Breaking
  • 28/10/2014

Union head Helen Kelly says the Government's Employment Relations Amendment Bill shows "outrageous disregard for the human condition", despite the Prime Minister's assurance it's "practical" and suits the modern working environment.

Expected to be passed tonight, CTU president Ms Kelly says the Bill "is one of the most radical reforms of employment law in the OECD, and will place us right outside any norms about standards for working people".

"Effectively it dismantles collective bargaining. While it requires employers to turn up and bargain in good faith for collective agreements, they can legitimately now say in the bargaining, 'Love your arguments, agree with everything, don't want a collective agreement – want individual agreements,'" she said on Firstline this morning.

"And there are all sorts of mechanisms in the law to break down the bargaining, get rid of current collective agreements… creates a 60-day period when workers have no rights when that happens, no rights to bargain, no rights to strike and no rights to good faith, and then slowly dismantle the bargaining unit – it gets rid of the tea break and the lunch break. What kind of Government does that?"

The tea break aspect of the Bill has generated the most headlines, but Prime Minister John Key says it's just being used to "frighten people".

"There are some really practical examples of where people just say, 'I want to negotiate with my employer and get rid of that tea break,'" he says.

"So as an example, I can tell you one employer who has people who work for him during the night shift, and they say, 'We'd much rather go home at 5:30am and not have a tea break at what would effectively be 3:30am, rather than go home at 6am.' You can't just unilaterally take that tea break away; there's more flexibility for people to actually get a time that actually suits. In the modern environment, that's what most people do."

Mr Key says his own breaks aren't set in stone, and when he takes them depends on what he's doing that day.

"I have a cup of tea – sometimes I have it at my desk, occasionally I walk out and have one down the road in Wellington or Auckland. It happens at different times."

But Ms Kelly says the Bill's vague wording leaves employees open to abuse, with employers having the final say on any disagreements.

"The employer has the ultimate say that there won't be a tea break or a lunch break, then they have to pay what's called 'compensatory measures'. But it no longer says in the Act that it's a 10-minute break or a half-hour lunch break, so what does compensation mean? It simply could be a sandwich at your desk and no break.

"It's an outrageous disregard for the human condition, which requires workers, and should allow workers, to have a break."

Labour acting deputy leader Annette King says unions are fighting against the Bill even though the changes to tea break rules won't affect them.

"When the Government says it's just the unions opposing this bill, in fact those are in unions already get their tea breaks as part of their agreements; it's the 93 percent of workers who are not in unions who are at risk of losing their tea breaks," she says.

Mr Key says employers want to get on with their staff, and the "vast overwhelming bulk" of them won't go to "war" over tea breaks.

"Post the passing of this law, will you all of a sudden find thousands of workers who are denied having a tea break? The answer is absolutely not."

40,000 sign 'Save our Tea Break' petition

The bill's meal break provisions have brought strong opposition from Labour, the Maori Party, unions and the public – with almost 40,000 people signing Labour's 'Save our Tea Break' petition in the last week.

While most employers are expected to respond to the changes well, there are some concerns for the rights of young or vulnerable workers.

Under current law, employees' minimum rights include either a 10 minute break if working more than two hours, and a 30-minute unpaid meal break if working between four and six hours.

Workers are still entitled to rest and meal breaks under the amended bill, but employers must reasonably decide when they take a break, and how long for.

Employers and Manufacturers Association spokesman Kim Campbell says unions are wrong to assume workers will not get reasonable breaks, or will get paid in lieu of taking a break.

The bill will simply mean employers can use greater flexibility at structuring break timetabling to work around the needs of their business instead of sticking to rigid guidelines, he says.

"The vast majority of people who come to work and have a smoko break – that's not going to change."

Mr Campbell says while there is potential for small-time employers in industries such as hospitality to abuse workers' rights, the majority of employers will behave in a reasonable manner.

"I'll be absolutely amazed if anyone says 'you can't go to the bathroom' or 'you can't have a lunch break'."

Air New Zealand, one of the country's most high-profile employers, says it "broadly" supports the new bill, but refused to comment on whether it would restructure meal and rest breaks.

Labour's employment spokesman Andrew Little says most employers will probably stick to current arrangements until there's a reason not to.

"Over time it will deteriorate as we've seen with other law changes in the past."

Law open to misinterpretation – expert

An Auckland supermarket worker, who did not wish to be identified, says she is worried about the rights of young workers if they are made to negotiate their breaks with employers – a difficult ask for those in their first job.

"Especially in small businesses – there is a good chunk of New Zealand that could be really good employers but most of my employers have been jerks so I know some people will take advantage of [the law changes].

The 22-year-old woman said she quit her first job at a café because her employer was unreasonable about taking breaks and staff were afraid to speak up for fear of losing their jobs.

"I got more stressed and more stressed and then I would break down because I was so tired."

Employment law expert Claire English, senior associate at Chen Palmer law firm, says there is potential for employers to misinterpret the new law.

Several years ago break entitlements were clarified under current law, to prevent ambiguity leading to misunderstandings between employers and employees, she says.

However the new changes will remove that clarity and employers could find it difficult to know how they are reasonably expected to structure rest and meal breaks.

"How do you choose if you don't have guidance?" she says.

"It will need to be worked out with goodwill from both sides."

Ms English says the majority of workplaces will probably continue to structure breaks according to current law, but she expects to see changes "at the edges", where vulnerable or young workers could be negatively affected.

However most New Zealanders have a "general idea of what fair looks like", and she hopes employees will report any abuse of their rights.

The Employment Relations Amendment Bill is expected to take effect in about March 2015.

How break entitlements will change

  • Under the amended law, employees are still entitled to rest and meal breaks, but employers can decide when they take a break, and how long for.
  • Employers can restrict breaks in situations where a worker might need to work sole-charge, or respond to an urgent situation such as healthcare workers dealing with medical emergencies.
  • An employer does not have to provide a break if a worker has agreed to forgo it, or when the nature of the work means the employer cannot reasonably provide one.
  • In these cases employees must receive reasonable compensation.

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