Repost: Employment law: it’s toasted

In an early episode of Mad Men, when the company’s going for the Lucky Strike account, sleazebag antihero Don Draper asks the client exactly how cigarettes are made. They talk through the process, mentioning the tobacco is toasted – and Don says, “there’s your line. It’s toasted.”

But, the Lucky Strike guys protest, all cigarette tobacco is toasted. There’s nothing special about the way Lucky Strike toasts its tobacco.

“Doesn’t matter,” Don says. “You’re the only people talking about it.”

Watching Mad Men explains a truly depressing amount about the success of John Key’s government.

Take their employment law changes: right now, they’re legislating away the right to a tea break, replacing the current mandatory minimum rest periods (two 10-minute breaks and one half-hour break for an 8-hour shift) with non-mandatory, “if your employer thinks it’s unreasonable they can take it away” rest periods. And the examples that keep getting cited are of teachers (those unreliable moochers) “just” walking out of a classroom when break time rolls around, or air traffic controllers “just” downing tools and letting all the planes crash.

The fact is, minimum breaks aren’t currently set to a compulsory schedule. The law does not say, “if you start at 8am then you must stop work at 10am for 10 minutes”. They’re a minimum level because some employers absolutely would make you work a twelve hour shift non-stop if they could (and probably pay you $2 an hour for it too.)

But you never hear about it. And because people are generally well-natured and assume their political leaders are well-natured too (and that their media is well-informed and analytical and will provide any necessary context) it just gets taken for granted that there must be a problem with our current break system. Because, well, the Minister says of course he supports regular rest breaks! National wouldn’t take them away unless there was a problem, right? It’s just giving people flexibility, and they obviously need flexibility, you can’t just have air traffic controllers wandering off and letting all the planes crash.

It was the same story around 90-day fire-at-will trials. Under the old law, employers could put new workers on probationary periods – longer probationary periods than the 90-day trials, even! The difference was, those probationary periods had to be genuine trials. Workers had to be given feedback on their performance, and still had basic work rights – unlike the 90-day trials.

But you never heard about it. And because people are generally well-natured, etc, it just got taken for granted that we needed the 90-day trial period. Because, well, they wouldn’t do it if it already existed, right? It’s just fair to allow employers to give someone a go, right? Why are you complaining about job creation?

It’s lying by omission, capitalising on people’s goodwill and faith that our government isn’t really an out-of-control pack of cynical profiteers, who rule for the rich and powerful and put no stock in ideas about wellbeing, community or anything besides the money they can get their hands on right now.

Watch for it.

(For a side-by-side comparison of the tea break rules, check Helen Kelly’s Twitter.)

Added: I’d already written this article when Mike Hosking’s diatribe about “just work hard and your boss will never exploit you” came out. Suffice it to say, I think if you’ve never worked in a role where your rest breaks were strictly scheduled, and you didn’t have to worry about how much you earned in your first job, you are a very, very privileged person.

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