Woodhouse: tough on bad employers?

It should be heartening to see a National Minister of Labour (sorry, “Workplace Relations and Safety”) handing out to “bad” employers some of the no-nonsense tough-talk the right usually reserves for pregnant teenagers and people who don’t like being illegally spied on:

Employers who exploit their workers or breach employment standards are in line for a raft of harsher penalties.

New measures set to be introduced by the Government, include naming and shaming offending business owners, a massive increase in the value of fines the Employment Court can hand out, and the possibility of being banned from employing staff.

Thing is, it’s very easy to promise you’re going to crack down on employers who breach minimum standards … when you’re reducing said standards to make it easier for bad employers to get away with bad behaviour.

This is a government which has empowered employers to dismiss workers in the first 90 days for any reason whatsoever, walk away from collective bargaining, refuse to provide full information to workers who are dismissed or made redundant, hire new workers on worse terms and conditions than the collective, and even allowed employers to take their share of KiwiSaver contributions out of your pay.

They’ve re-introduced youth rates so 17- and even 19-year-olds can be paid less for doing the same work. They’ve removed protections for vulnerable workers like cleaners so their mates at CrestClean can make more money. They’ve allowed millionaires like Peter Jackson to classify permanent employees as “contractors” and deny them basic protections.

Talking tough now about “stronger sanctions” and “sending a message” can only be seen as a PR exercise. Which is a pity, because if National actually cared about cracking down on the bullies of New Zealand workplaces, I’m sure workers would be happy to provide a list of candidates.

By the time we get around to 2017 – unless Winston (a) wins in Northland and (b) doesn’t sell out for some sweet office-baubles again – the “minimum employment standards” in New Zealand could be so flimsy that Woodhouse could make breaching them punishable by public flogging and it wouldn’t mean much. The bad employers will take full advantage, and the good employers – who believe in radical notions like “my workers should be able to have a lunch break” and “my workers need to be able to afford food and rent” – will be undercut and struggle to stay in business.

Which makes Woodhouse’s stormy rhetoric all the more ironic:

“Those who breach minimum employment standards have an unfair advantage over law-abiding employers and it is unfair on employees who work hard to support their families”

You know what else is unfair, Minister? Removing basic workers’ rights, undermining workers’ collective bargaining, and redefining “law-abiding employers” so it covers the exploitative companies who – probably – support your election campaigns.

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