Richard Rudman is the editor of the NZ Employment Law Guide, and hence an expert in the area of employment law.
The Health and Safety Reform Bill returned to Parliament from the Select Committee last Friday, more than 15 months after the Bill was introduced to the House.
However Workplace Relations Minister Michael Woodhouse says he still has some more changes he wants to make.
He was forced into having the Transport and Industrial Relations Select Committee revise the Bill after widespread concern within both the Cabinet and National caucus that the Bill would make life difficult for small business and farmers.
There was some speculation that that concern went as far as a threatened rebellion by some backbench MPs.
If so, the rebellion was put down cheaply. None of the changes made by the Select Committee is that significant in the overall scheme of new workplace health and safety legislation.
But the changes appear to have cost National the support of Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens for the reforms.
They were looking for any reason to oppose the changes. The reality is this law change will deliver 99% of what the Royal Commission recommended. Yet the opposition parties would have you think that somehow it is a backward step. They’re playing politics, so their union mates can wave some crosses about.
The only significant change is:
Small businesses (those with fewer than 20 workers and not in a prescribed high-risk sector or industry) need not agree to a request from workers to establish a health and safety committee or arrange the election of a health and safety representative.
That’s it. That is what they are crying is the end of the world. That a small clerical office of say three staff doesn’t have to agree to an elected health and safety rep.
If the industry is at all high-risk, or there are more than 20 employees, there will be a statutory right to an elected health and safety rep. And you know what, a small employer can still decide to have one – just that it is not mandatory. But regardless of this, they still have the same requirements to have a safe workplace, and face prosecution if they don’t.
So as this employment law expert has said, the change made by the select committee is very minor. The outrage by the unions and their parliamentary wings is entirely contrived.
In any case, all businesses — large or small — are required to “engage” with their workers on health and safety matters that might affect them.
Engagement includes sharing relevant information; giving workers a reasonable opportunity to express their views and raise health or safety issues, and to contribute to decision-making; taking the workers’ views into account, and advising workers of the outcomes.
In addition, all businesses must have practices that provide reasonable opportunities for their workers to participate effectively in improving health and safety on an ongoing basis.
Given these duties, exemption from the requirement for a committee or representative seems little relief for small businesses.
I suspect the union anger is that they see elected health and safety reps as a back door to workplaces, so they can try and unionise them.
The requirement to consult all workers on health and safety matters is far more important than whether there is an elected rep in a small clerical office of four people.