This opinion piece appeared in the Otago Daily Times on April 10 2015 and drew favourable mention in political commentator Bryce Edwards’ column in the New Zealand Herald

Wednesday September 9th, 2015

It has been suggested (ODT 15/3/15) that zero-hour contracts are a necessary tool.

For many managers and business owners in the retail and service sectors, competitive pressures may make them essential. It’s a race to the bottom.

Employees on zero-hour contracts agree to work as required with no say or guarantee about hours of work. In effect they start a job agreeing not to have any consultation about when they will work or any entitlement to set days or hours of work.

The controversy over this is between the usual suspects: political and academic interventionists crying for more restrictive employment legislation, and business interests running cynical arguments about freedom of contract.

Both camps miss the point. The real issue is about power and control in the workplace. What is refreshing for some employers, and despicable to objectors, is that zero-hour contracts enable management to deal promptly with any risk of dissent or challenge to management decision making.

Zero-hour contracts are the ideal tool for disciplining and culling the workplace of the unpopular, the poor performer and disposing of unwanted employee expression.
They dispense with the cost and need to engage human resource or legal assistance with time-consuming work performance and disciplinary processes. There is no need to bother with trial periods and there is little risk of personal grievance cases.

Take the real example of several retail chains that run a seven-day operation trading 54 to 60 hours per week. They have one permanent manager in each store and require a minimum of one or two employees on duty at any time.

Zero-hour contracts enable each store manager to employ and roster staff at will. There is no need for the manager to be able to follow complex employment laws or to train staff to improve.

Quite simply, if any employee acts in way that is perceived as difficult or insufficiently submissive, they are no longer offered a place on the roster for work. The employee has no right to challenge as their zero-hour contract contains no consultation rights for rosters or set hours of work entitlements.

This sets an example to others. Employees who work without asking for meal and rest breaks and who do not raise issues about working conditions, or question management decisions are preferred and get the work.

Zero-hour contracts are part of a pushback. They are the unintended consequence of the folly over the past 15 years of governments presuming to set conditions of work through amending employment legislation.

Now that zero-hour contracts are discussed and criticised, legal apologists feebly recite the option for job applicants to take the zero-hour contracts away and get advice. (Employment lawyers may charge $250 to $350 per hour.)

There would be little point in seeking such advice as these job applicants are in no position to bargain about notice of roster or hours of work. It is a case of take it or leave it. There is little or no risk for the employer.

The cry by opponents for piecemeal amendments to make employment legislation more restrictive is no solution. Informed and sensible change to conditions of work can only happen at the workplace.

The source of the problem is the restriction of bargaining options at the workplace under the Employment Relations Act 2000. It denies employees and management the freedom to bargain together in the majority of New Zealand workplaces.

Collective bargaining remains limited to an increasingly irrelevant and marginalised union monopoly thanks to 15 years of collusion by the Labour and Green parties. To its shame, the National Party reneged on its 2008 policy to reintroduce enterprise bargaining rights for each workplace.

The current system is a geriatric makeover of the old 1980’s “industrial relations club”. A restricted right to collective bargaining is carefully sidelined and maintained by government to keep control of economic policy and to manage the cost of its public sector workforce which remains the most unionised sector.

So the deliberate exclusion of 80 percent of the workforce from the collective bargaining system enables private sector employers to engage employees in the same workplace on quite different terms from each other under separate individual employment agreements.

Some of these employees will be selected for zero-hour contracts as second tier employees with no job security.

Since the present system deprives these employees of the ability to respond and negotiate together at work, it is to be expected that the use of zero-hours contracts will become widespread and an increasing number of private sector employees will become part of this growing second tier.

Instead of asking departmental officials to look into the situation, the Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety Michael Woodhouse should be directing this policy matter to the Government caucus room.

If you want to see what Bryce said - here is the link:

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