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Controversial 90-day Trial Period Bill Passes First Hurdle

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

By Maggie Tait of NZPA

Wellington, Dec 11 NZPA - The Government's controversial employment bill passed its first reading in Parliament today after a passionate debate.

The Government argued the Employment Relations Amendment Bill, introducing a 90-day probation period during which workers in businesses with 20 or fewer workers can be sacked, is needed to face tough economic times.

The bill comes into effect next April and is being rushed through under urgency meaning the public will not get a chance to comment.

Opponents complained the hurry was because the bill was unpopular and that protections in the bill would be ineffective.

The Human Rights Commission (HRC) Equal Opportunities Commissioner Judy McGregor yesterday said there was no need for speed and it had concerns about employees' rights and unintended consequences.

Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson said Wayne Mapp's previous member's bill aimed to do the same thing as the new bill and it had been well canvassed in its select committee with 618 submissions made.

She said the bill would encourage employers to give new workers including the long-term unemployed, young people and others who struggled to get work, a chance.

"Currently there are no provisions for trial periods in our existing employment legislation. In fact we are one of the few countries internationally that do not have a trial period for employees."

Under the bill workers will not be able to raise a personal grievance if they are sacked within the 90 days.

However, workers could access complaints processes for discrimination and good faith provisions applied.

"This bill is not about taking away rights it is about giving opportunities. It has safety mechanisms to ensure that it is fair and balanced and a win win both for employee and employer."

Ms Wilkinson said beneficiaries who were sacked under the law would not face a stand-down period, there could be no roll over of the probation period and it was voluntary.

Labour leader Phil Goff said the Government was acting in an arrogant way and was stripping thousands of New Zealand workers of their rights.

Labour MP Trevor Mallard said National wouldn't "feel like a Tory Government if it didn't attack workers in its first weeks in government".

He said it was outrageous and unnecessary for the bill to go through under urgency and the change was not needed as there were already probation periods.

"What this bill does is to take away from the people who are on probation the rights and privileges that they have."

Mediation allowed under the bill was guaranteed to fail without any rights or ability to go to court, he said.

Maori Party MP Hone Harawira added that there was no provision for workers to be reinstated. Once they were sacked they could not seek mediation.

Mr Mallard said there was no choice for workers who would be told "sign this or no job".

Mr Mallard intends to put up an amendment to exempt teachers from the change. About 30 percent of schools employed 20 or fewer employees and teachers, who, while paid by the Education Ministry, were hired by boards of trustees.

When schools were raised previously Ms Wilkinson doubted there was a problem as teachers were in demand and they could make it a condition of accepting any job that there be no trial period.

Green MP Sue Bradford said a time of recession and increasing unemployment was the worst moment to strip rights.

"The bill will play into the hands of those employers who are lazy, mean or prejudiced or are simply ignorant about how to treat staff well."

She believed migrant and other ethnic workers would be worst affected and she feared the 90-day period would be extended to larger companies.

"I don't think in the long run anyone is safe," she said.

Mr Harawira said the bill would have "massive and immediate" negative implications for all workers.

"We come to this debate acutely aware of the impending fallout that will hit workers in manufacturing, in retail and in construction -- industries that employ high numbers of Maori and Pacifica peoples."

The bill also removes from law a requirement that employers did not deduct KiwiSaver contributions from salaries having made a change in legislation passed this morning.

The passed by 63 votes to 55 with National, ACT and United Future voting in favour.

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