OIA on Zero Hours reveals just what an attack on workers it is.

OIA on Zero Hours reveals just what an attack on workers it is.

By Helen Kelly, President, NZ Council of Trade Unions

Reprinted from The Standard

We have the documents leading up to the what can only be described as a dreadful piece of law legalising employment agreements which tie workers to an employer without any of the reciprocity of guaranteed hours of work.

It all started with the spectacular Unite campaign against “zero hour” contracts in fast food. These 24/7 businesses employ thousands of workers, make loads of money from their efforts but were exploiting shite employment law to engage workers on contracts that forced them to be available any time day and night, but without any guaranteed hours.


Workers told how some weeks they got hardly any  hours and couldn’t pay the rent and how some weeks they got too many hours and were exhausted.  How they couldn’t commit to family events in case they had to work, how sport was out of the question as they never knew what would be demanded of them and how they were punished for any perceived slight by having their hours cut on any whim.  Unite used industrial and community power to win agreements with these employers that these workers would be guaranteed hours based on the recent historical record of what they had been working.  This has meant a massive improvement in the quality of their lives.  It also highlighted a widely experienced issue and the community responded with disgust about the whole situation.

When you take a bigger look atthe whole issue of hours of work and how important it is to working people to get regular hours , it is a crazy situation that unless there are genuine business reasons, hours and working times should be part of all employment arrangements.  The fact they are not is a simple control mechanism and reflective of an exploitative environment where anything goes.  You might remember at the same time, the public were outraged at stories of petrol station attendants having their wages docked for drive offs.  A similar reflection of the arrogance and greed our current weak employment laws encourage.  The Government realised it was at risk of the whole issue of the deregulation of the labour market coming under challenge.

So up steps the knight in shining armour Minister Woodhouse and in a fashion typical of this Government spins a line that he is going to stop this unfair practice and at the same time stop the deductions of workers wages like in the petrol attendants situation.  As usual, they thought they would ease the public concern without having to chuck out the whole project.  But of course now the pressure is off he is not even going to do that.  In fact the new Bill introduced last week and on a very short submission timeframe actually legislates for both – what could currently be illegal in many circumstances (CTU thinks many zero hour contracts will not be lawful in the circumstances many are operated, and the pay deductions are definitely unlawful), will now be made perfectly acceptable.

The new Bill allows for deductions from wages that are not “unreasonable” .  The current law only allows deductions for things that benefit the employee (e.g. rentals on farms, union fees, kiwisaver etc) but not for losses.  This new provision would allow an employer to propose deductions of no benefit to the worker if they can show they are not unreasonable.  The Bill also allows for zero hour contracts or “availability provisions” as they are called. The Bill even allows an employer to restrict second jobs on new and expanded terms much wider than the current law – effectively an employer can offer no hours but still stop you taking other work!

The official documents reveal just how this Government works.

  1.  Officials start off with some proposals banning unconscionable conduct – this is way too much for Government (think about this – imagine banning unconscionable conduct – what would be left?)
  2. Next one out of control Cabinet Cttee suggests that where historical hours show a pattern of work, the worker gains a right to this pattern as guaranteed hours in their agreement – this is rejected of course.
  3. The next proposal is to legislate for zero hours but provide for “reasonable compensation” to be payable to a worker that has a no hours agreement but is required to be available endlessly.  This is rejected by Cabinet;  and
  4. The final Bill simply says a contract can legally have zero hours regardless of necessity and “compensation” (of any amount) be included in an agreement if the requirement is for endless availability of the worker.
  5. An outrageous proposal is then added that will impact on all workers – that the current law that protects workers being restricted from taking second jobs to earn a fair living is amended to allow the employer to restrict this for a wide range of reasons not currently lawful, and which previously might have encouraged an employer to secure you through decent hours.

So the upshot is – the Bill will pass and make these agreements lawful, acceptable and cheap.  It will encourage them, and pay deductions and restrictions on second jobs.  At a time like now – where work in this country is so badly paid, with so little protection – we get this.