Employment Relations

I have been noticing a lack of balance in workplace relations over the past decade or so and I bring to you some experiences as indicators of areas needing improvement.

I was recently given a cover page from a job application for a minimum wage job.  It asks for a Schedule of Claimant Injuries be requested from ACC before the job application can be considered.

I phoned Employment NZ, astoundingly for every question I asked, answered, we're not qualified to answer that, told me the person should seek legal advice and eventually, advised me to phone the Privacy Commission.  I'm not entirely sure what Employment NZ actually does.

The Privacy Commission, was more helpful, and agreed it was beyond what is required for employment, which is information that is relevant to the applicant’s suitability for the particular role, and a person’s sensitive claim or childhood injuries are not.  But then the person has to make a formal complaint - which then becomes a matter of public record and like employment court means a person will be branded a troublemaker and blacklisted.

Similarly, the Employment Relations Authority relies on a formal complaint being made, hearings and the outcome becomes a matter of public record.  I myself have applied for positions where the application asks if I’ve ever taken a grievance against an employer, there is never a question asking what for.

An example of this is a graduate lawyer who was severely bullied by the boss in their first job.  With a provable case they sought legal advice but were told, yes you have a good case but if you take an employment grievance it will damage your future. This graduate left the job, but the bullying continued with the now-ex boss attempting to cancel the practicing certificate and even informing the local District Court they were unable to practice.  It only ceased when their next employer intervened.

So, if an educated legal person, with resources, can’t address workplace issues without it affecting their career, you can imagine that people well down the food-chain have an even more difficult time.

Another story.  National, when on the government benches, abolished ‘zero hour’ contracts, effective 1 April 2016, to great accolade.  However, those businesses just moved onto, for example, two-hour casual contracts, with all the uncertainty of a zero-hour contract, the need to be available for work whenever you are called or you go to the bottom of the list. 

An actual example, of another local workplace where casual staff, employed on a two-hour contract over the busy Christmas period, were often written onto the roster for shifts but not informed of them and then censured for ‘no-show’.  A staff member found out that it went on to their staff record because the supervisor left the shift book open on the staff room table, for all to see, and although they explained were told there was no recourse for this.   Sometimes they were told they were working a shift but when they traveled in, arriving at work (sometimes cancelling other plans or paying for child-care) the shift they were told to come to work for hadn’t been entered into the roster and there was nothing for them to do but return home.  

One worker had a supervisor stand behind them to ‘watch them work’, because they ‘weren’t working fast enough’, while berating them for the so called ‘lack of work’ they had done their previous shift under a different supervisor (the worker, and four others, worked the entire shift did everything they were told to do by their supervisor, but this worker was the only one berated). 

This was so bad a customer intervened telling the supervisor they couldn’t treat staff like this, that customer complained. The company ‘apologised’, but during the meeting told the employee this supervisor had done this before.  The worker then became the target for the supervisors.  It got to the point the casual staff ‘joked’ about what the supervisor could find to yell at them about. Such things as not sweeping the floor correctly the night before (they hadn’t swept the floor on that shift), putting the sweepings in the ‘wrong’ rubbish bin, ordering that boxes marked ‘23 kg two person lift’, be placed on top of racks requiring the single person perform an over-head lift while standing on top of a ladder platform, laughed at when replacement box-cutter blades were requested, then later being admonished because the boxes cut for display were untidy.  Staff have absolutely no recourse, there’s little other work available and if they leave the employment or are ‘fired’ I understand there is a lengthy stand down period before any govt assistance can be received.  

People have no choice but to put up with bullying, abuse and exploitation, all for twenty cents above minimum wage, because the company often advertises itself as paying staff above minimum wage.

Ironically the workers I was speaking with were working under these conditions while the company founder was made a Knight Grand Companion of The New Zealand Order of Merit in the New Year Honours.  Yep. 

Over the past ten years, I’ve known many young people who have desperately wanted to gain a trade qualification.  These are good hard-working young people, that completed school and polytechnic courses, turn up to work every day ready and able to work.  One young person took a student loan to attend a motorcycle mechanic pre-trade program.  This program, in Wellington, graduates around 30 pre-apprentice trainees a year, there’s 2 or 3 motorcycle mechanic apprenticeships available per year in the area.  This young person then tried to gain a Locksmith trade, their story follows.

After answering an advertisement for a locksmith cadetship in 2013, promising an apprenticeship for the right candidate, this young person was successful in their application.  For fourteen months they were ‘teased’ with the promise of ‘next month’, when eventually they were signed up as an apprentice with Competenz. After a first meeting with a mentor, then monthly for three months, that mentor left, their replacement had no knowledge of the industry or system, who also left within the month, this went on for a total of eight mentors, with even an eight-month gap between mentors, and no bookwork was assessed. They were also given unit standards that were expiring, or had expired, to complete and then needed to be redone.  After two years of being signed up as an apprentice, and over three years with this company, this apprentice attended their first block course which had been ‘palmed off’ to the Manakau Institute of Technology to organise and administer.  The tutor was handed the course content the morning of the course (in front of the class). During the two week course, discussion among students was that it was a waste of time.  Level three and four unit standards, worth up to 20 credits each, were condensed into one or two pages of questions that were answered as open book class discussion. This former apprentice says they are qualified in master key systems, but have never created a master key system and wouldn’t know where to start.  From what this apprentice understands, the tutor, his own boss and many other bosses who had apprentices on the course made complaints about the contents or lack of, they were simply told it would be better next year. 

The next level block course was held 16 months later at the same campus was much better, curated by industry leaders, not Competenz.  Despite having completed all of the required hours for an apprenticeship, plus some, they were unable to complete the unit standards as they weren’t given the training required.  Out of the five years and two months working there, four years as an apprentice, three and a half of those years were as sole charge in a branch shop with no supervision or training. 

It is clear advancing the apprentice to qualify was not the priority of keeping an apprentice in this company.  As many other examples show, apprentices are simply cheap skilled labour who have no recourse, if they have any hope of ever qualifying or getting another job in the industry.

There is also a problem with cross-crediting, this apprentice had completed a pre-trade motorcycle course and had gained a number of unit standards, for example using ‘basic hand tools for automotive’ however was unable to cross-credit to using ‘basic hand tools for engineering’, even though when they repeated, it was exactly the same content, the explanation given they were ‘incompatible fields’.

Two other young people, successful in getting apprenticeships in the motorcycle industry, in different regions, had very similar experiences.  On apprentice pay rates, not released for ‘block courses’ working almost sole-charge, with little or no supervision. For one, there was not even a qualified motorcycle mechanic on the staff and they were doing ALL of the motorcycle work, being paid apprentice rates but their hours were being billed out at full price!  It took this person a year to find another workshop where they could finish their apprenticeship.  The other moved regions to find a workshop where they could complete their apprenticeship, both taking almost six years to complete a three year qualification.

A final example is of a hairdressing apprentice, who on apprentice rates spent three years in each of two salons, enduring similar experiences to those above.  This young person has given up their dream and now milks goats.  In every online discussion there are further anecdotal accounts of similar exploitation and frustration.

I personally know six young people who have undertaken apprenticeships, only one doing an electrical apprentice, has had a reasonable run, and for the others their troubles were certainly not through their own lack of efforts. 

There is absolutely no protection for them, no oversight of their apprenticeships, no one for them to turn to, none of the taxpayer funded authorities, institutions, services or departments had any care or concern.  It took 14 YEARS to expose a slavery and human trafficking ring in Hawkes Bay[1] – what chance do these young people have?

Minister Hipkins said in a paper to Cabinet;

“The plan also suggested stopping industry training organisations from arranging and paying for training and paring back their role to setting standards and qualifications and advising the Tertiary Education Commission under the new title of industry skills bodies. 

Tertiary institutions would take over the job of organising and providing work-based industry training and that would be a big challenge.  Providers would take responsibility for approximately 140,000 trainees and apprentices in addition to the approximately 110,000 vocational education learners they already serve (based on 2017 figures).

This would require increased capability and capacity. This change will promote better alignment between on- and off-job education and training, and stabilise provision of vocational education across the economic cycle,". 

The paper said industry training organisations (ITOs) might respond negatively to the proposals, but they included a significantly increased leadership role for the industry[2].”

In a similar vein, the report from the working group on Fair Pay Agreement is not addressing the current employment relations and standards system.  The EPA recommends New Zealand  will benefit from stronger employer-worker dialogue and discusses that it will better integrate vunerable groups[3].  As previously described, the only way for an employee to have a grievance addresses, even when the employer is blatently breaking the law, is to make a formal complaint.  This places the onus on the employee, potentially damaging their future employment opportunities, to uphold workplace legislation from an increadbly unequal position and is effectively allowing employers to exploit and abuse workers.  Nothing in the FPA proposal addresses this.

There is no proposal in any of the signaled workplace or polytechnic changes that addresses these ongoing problems.  

For a government, whose  raison d'etre was purported to be standing up for workers and vulnerable people, they are again failing.  

Unless their purpose is now in giving unions more power, but workers none, then they are a great success. 

[1] NZ Herald, Name suppression lapses for Samoan national accused of slavery, 17 December 2018 https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12178378
[2]NZ Institute of Skills and Technology: 16 polytechs to merge under government proposal 14 February 2019 https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/382366/nz-institute-of-skills-and-technology-16-polytechs-to-merge-under-government-proposal
[3] https://www.mbie.govt.nz/assets/695e21c9c3/working-group-report.pdf


  1. Ugh! Reading some of those examples reminds me of my brief time at a franchise cafe for minimum wage a couple of years ago. I was hired on a 90 day trial period and it was awful... soul destroying. Owners were nitpicky and overbearing, staff would regularly cry on their breaks. One young staff member was sexually harrassed by the older man who did the dishes, but since he was a friend of the owners family nothing happened so she had to either keep working or quit. It was wrong of me to do this, but i sneaked a peek at a coworker's payslip when she left in on the shelf, she'd managed to stick it out 3 years and she was still on minimum wage. I dropped three plates when i was working there and the staff were told that because of me they weren't going to get their Christmas bonuses. Oh, and two of the workers were male, and they got paid a higher rate. Being let go after my trial period was just about a relief!

    1. Yes, it seems the franchise cafe industry have a bit of an entitlement problem. Muffin Break boss Natalie Brennan slams 'entitled' millennials https://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=12206618


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