Tuesday, July 20, 2010

About bloody time

Most of the attention given to the government’s proposed labour law reforms has focused on the widening of the 90-day “probation” period for new employees and the new requirement that people taking sick days may have to produce a doctor’s letter. But if you ask me (and admittedly, no one has), a couple of the other proposals are every bit as significant.

The first is the radical proposition (I’m being sarcastic here) that employers should be allowed to communicate directly with their workers, rather than only through a union, during collective bargaining. When I was a newspaper editor I thought it outrageous that during disputes with the journalists’ union – which were not infrequent – we (that is, the company) were prohibited from talking to our staff about the issues in dispute. The union was free to put whatever lopsided, misleading spin it wanted on things (and often did). It struck me as grossly inequitable that while the union could bombard its members with inflammatory propaganda, the employers were required by law to remain meekly silent. National should have jettisoned this provision immediately on taking office.

The second proposed change, which is even more significant, is that the Employment Relations Act will be amended so that employers who sack people are judged by the overall fairness of the dismissal process rather than on the basis of pedantic technicalities. This is a breakthrough that has been a long time coming. I’ve lost count of the cases I’ve read about in which employees have behaved abominably yet been reinstated, and their employers heavily penalised, because some minor and often inadvertent procedural flaw has been identified. Process repeatedly triumphs over what most fair-minded people would consider natural justice.

The dice were so hopelessly loaded against employers in dismissal cases that companies inevitably became gun-shy about taking on new staff. Why take the risk when even the dishonest, the lazy, the drug-addled and the incompetent can’t be fired without risking costly legal recriminations?

In this respect the proposed reform of the dismissal laws dovetails neatly with the extension of the 90-day probation period. Both moves will give employers new confidence about hiring staff, and job applicants will have nothing to fear provided they are willing and able to do the work expected of them.

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