If you are reading this on a break, you may be in a minority. A survey of Unite members shows that many are not getting their breaks. In some places it has become the norm.

From 1 April 2009, all employers are required to provide employees with paid rest breaks and unpaid meal breaks. These provisions come into force as a result of the Employment Relations (Breaks, Infant Feeding, and Other Matters) Amendment Act 2008 passed in September 2008.

The Amendment aims to improve health and safety in workplaces and increase productivity by establishing a minimal standard across all industries.

Most employment agreements have breaks included. These are rights won by workers and need to be defended.

One of the earliest industrial disputes in New Zealand’s history was over the right to breaks. It began in 1908, in Blackball, a small mining town on the West Coast of the South Island. There were seven miners who went on strike to extend their lunch break from fifteen to thirty minutes. The management sacked the strikers but fellow workers joined the strike, and after a prolonged struggle they won longer breaks. The strike helped the fledgling union movement by showing that collective action was decisive.
Breaks are important for workplace health and safety, and they also help create a sense of camaraderie. When people skip breaks or just grab a cuppa “when they have a moment”, they are missing out on the social aspect of combined breaks.

Workers who aren’t getting breaks may be able to successfully claim compensation. For instance, staff at Auckland Airport food court have missed out on a paid ten-minute break for years and union members are now seeking compensation.

At hotels, some cleaning staff are missing out on breaks due to workloads. It’s important to remember that wage workers are paid by the hour – not by the piece. An employer is not able to dock pay for tasks not completed. If more work is allocated than can be finished during a shift, management should get more staff or roster more hours.

Speak to your union delegate or organiser if you are missing out on breaks. Skipping breaks is not the answer to overwork.

Rest and meal breaks: what you’re entitled to:
Employees are entitled to the following paid rest breaks and unpaid meal breaks:

- one paid 10-minute rest break if their work period is between two and four hours.

- one paid 10-minute rest break and one unpaid 30-minute meal break if their work period is between four and six hours.

- two paid 10-minute rest breaks and one unpaid 30-minute meal break if their work period is between six and eight hours.

If more than an eight hour period is worked, these requirements automatically extend to cover the additional hours on the same basis.

Timing of rest and meal breaks
The timing of rest and meal breaks is flexible and can follow any arrangement agreed between employer and employee.
If an agreement can’t be reached, the rest and meal breaks should be spread evenly throughout the work period, where reasonable and practicable.

Additional rest and meal breaks
The Amendment’s provisions will establish minimal standards that apply across all industries.
Employers and employees are free to agree to additional entitlements to rest and meal breaks — either paid or unpaid.
The new provisions will not affect existing agreements that provide for additional paid or unpaid rest breaks and meal breaks.

Legislative exemptions
Where an employee is required to take a rest break under another enactment, that enactment applies instead of the entitlements to rest and meal breaks under the Act. This would include, for example, the Land Transport Rule: Work Time and Logbooks 2007 made under the Land Transport Act 1998.

Employers may be liable to a penalty imposed by the Employment Relations Authority if they do not comply with minimal standards for paid rest breaks and unpaid meal breaks. The Authority will also have the power to order employers to comply with their obligations.