Opinion: Employment law changes treat workplaces as if they are one-size-fits all and they're not

Like many, the Early Childhood Council has been raising concerns with policy makers about the impacts of the Employment Relations Amendment Bill 2018.

The Bill, currently before Select Committee, would put in place some new standards and protections for employees, and implement a number of changes to promote and strengthen collective bargaining and union rights in the workplace.

The changes, though intended to introduce greater fairness in the workplace between employees and employers, in order to promote productive employment relationships, would have a number of adverse impacts on early childhood education centres.

The ECC made a written and oral submission on the Bill. However, we are very concerned we have not been heard.

We have seen others expressing sentiments that the Bill is out of touch with many small and medium size New Zealand business needs, and some of the provisions are in fact seen as anti-business.

The major impacts on early childcare and education centres of the Bill are:

The Bill intends to reinstate the right to prescribed rest and meal breaks. For ECE centres it is often difficult to have fixed rest and meal breaks due to the nature of the work. Under the Education (Early Childhood Services) Regulations 2008, ECE services are required to maintain minimum adult:child ratios at all times. The meal and rest break changes, as currently worded in the Bill, would disrupt other legislative requirements and add costs. We ask that this be changed to specify that employees take their breaks between certain specified times, rather than set specific times.

The Bill intends to restore reinstatement as a primary remedy in unjustified dismissal cases, where the employee requests it. We believe this is too narrow and reinstatement should remain as one of a number of remedies to consider where needed.

The Bill would limit 90-day trial periods to employers with fewer than 20 employees. Like others, we would want to see trial period provisions set at 50 employees.

The Bill intends that workplaces cannot refuse multi-employer collective bargaining and we disagree with this provision. Most importantly to staff, the Bill would require the disclosure of information to unions without the express permission of the staff members concerned. This is of concern to centres and existing staff alike.

Unions would be given rights to access workplaces without consent, and this would clash with the requirements under other legislation for ECE centres, such as the Vulnerable Children's Act and Education Act.

We are asking MPs to consider these impacts on ECE services, and consider making amendments to the Bill so that all New Zealand workplaces can function well, including ECE services, without more layers of expensive bureaucracy, some of which don't best fit ECE services or create clashes with existing legislation.

Our members care about delivering quality early childhood education for our country's youngest citizens, however the increasing compliance and regulations on them as small businesses and education providers, means the viability of small, and rural services can be impacted.

We have heard that business confidence is said to be at a 7-year low. Alongside the announcement that government is setting up a business advisory council, to give some certainty to businesses, we also noted another advisory group - a small business council (announced 10 August) established to provide advice to the Minister of Small Business.

The 13-member small business council includes the education voice. We understand the group will look at the role of small business in the economy and will develop a new strategy to drive performance and better connect small and medium enterprises with government, large businesses and research institutions. It's unclear how the small business advisory council will connect with the business advisory council and how education will be represented at all levels. We will watch this space.

The ECC is monitoring the various advisory groups and councils, across different portfolios where they impact ECE, and we seek to meet MPs where they have an interest in ECE or where their work-streams may impact ECE services.

More voices on these issues, from real kiwis out there delivering services at the community level, mean the messages might one day be heard by the decision makers.

Until then, our ECC members will keep delivering education and care for our country's youngest citizens. And, we will wait and see what happens with the Employment Relations Amendment Bill 2018.

Peter Reynolds

Chief Executive Officer

Early Childhood Council