Give them a break

A couple of years ago my brother rang up, asking indignantly whether or not workers are entitled to tea breaks. His partner worked (standing) in a food bar in a large shopping mall and had been told she didn’t work hard enough to justify a break between starting work at 6am and a very short lunch break around 1pm.

It comes as a shock for many to learn that NZers are not entitled to breaks at work (except for pilots, truckies, and the like). Since the Employment Contracts Act 1991 swept away awards, breaks must be negotiated.

Remember Bill Birch’s assurances at the time that such conditions were “protected”? This was never going to be the case for the most vulnerable workers — cleaners, hospitality workers, petrol station attendants, etc — and so these conditions were lost.

Surprisingly, the Labour-led governments have not sought to restore tea breaks until this year. There was a view in 1999 that the new Employment Relations Act would fix these problems.

Predictably, employers don’t think this is a good idea. Of course there will be areas where it will be necessary to find ways around practical problems. But these issues can be overcome. As they are in other developed countries.

The most vulnerable workers in NZ lost wages and conditions in the early 1990s along with their awards and their access to unions. The relatively market-oriented regulatory regime that we have now did little to improve their labour market power, even in the good times. If anything, we should have separate wage-fixing machinery for them, along the lines of the Wages Councils in Britain that the Tories abolished.

But it is good to see something being done at last to restore breaks for these workers.

[Footnote: And, should you be wondering, my brother’s partner worked plenty hard. Just another crappy employer.]

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4 Responses to “Give them a break”

  1. Sconehead Says:

    Ah, Mr. Bill Birch. Or is that the Hon. Bill ‘Think Big, no, er, wait a minute’ Birch.

    What a truly appalling man – not just politician – he was. Or is, if he’s still alive.

    After poisoning the political landscape for more than a decade and buggering the economy almost beyond repair (and workers too), he’s completely disappeared. Done a Tim Barnett!

  2. jafapete Says:

    Oops, sorry scone, think I deleted the post-edit, by mistake. Still, this is a learning experience.

  3. One reason why National would be a calamity « Jafapete’s Weblog Says:

    […] protection to low paid workers in the event that their work gets sold. Recently, it has moved to return the tea and meal breaks lost in the early 1990s and provide some protection to casual and temp workers — disproportionately low […]

  4. Giving workers a break « Jafapete’s Weblog Says:

    […] background to this was traversed in an earlier post. Well done to all those […]

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