April 2016: a month of change in employment law

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The workplace has been the subject of major review over the past few years. The result is a raft of new rules, which will represent major changes to existing employment law.

Most of these are expected to come into force next month, so if you’re an employer and you’ve not already done so, you’ll need to familiarise yourself with two recent parliamentary projects:

  1. The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, which comes into force on 4 April 2016, and
  2. The Employment Standards Legislation Bill, which is still in the final stages of consideration but will likely to come into force on 1 April 2016, coinciding with the newly announced minimum wage increase to $15.25 an hour.

These statutes will herald major benefits and protections for employees but also present significant compliance challenges for employers, many of whom will have their work cut out for them in the coming weeks if they wish to remain in line with the law come April.

Health and Safety at Work Act

The Pike River Mine disaster called attention to major concerns with occupational health and safety. WorkSafe New Zealand now aims to reduce the number of work-related deaths and serious injuries by 25% by 2020, and the Health and Safety at Work Act has been put in place help achieve this goal.

This Act replaces the old Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 and the Machinery Act 1950. The Act has introduced a number of regulations, focusing on specific issues such as mining and quarrying operations, asbestos in the workplace, and the provision of adventure activities, and many more are on their way.

Together, these place the emphasis on everyone in the workplace being responsible for health and safety. Persons conducting businesses or undertakings are naturally given the primary responsibility, but the Act also requires greater worker participation and representation.

There are some big conceptual shifts. Where the focus was formerly on identifying hazards, it’s now on managing and eliminating critical risks. Instead of the physical workplace, the emphasis is now on the actual conduct of the work.

Probably most notably, the Act introduces the concept of what is “reasonably practicable”; in essence, the Act focuses on what is proportional to the circumstances of each individual workplace environment.

Employment Standards Legislation Bill

The Employment Standards Legislation Bill is a multifaceted attempt to tackle what has been described as a “culture” of widespread breaches of minimum employment standards. The Bill proposes amendments to a number of statutes. It will require more robust record-keeping and will prohibit many unfair and unreasonable employment practices, such as certain types of pay deductions and restrictions on secondary employment – and it will increase the powers of labour inspectors and greatly increase the penalties available for breaches of the rules.

There are two other significant proposals on the table. Firstly, there will be extensive changes to paid parental leave allowances; in relation to both the time limits, and to the classes of workers to whom leave is available.

Secondly, the Bill is proposing heavy restrictions on so-called “zero-hour” contracts – contracts that provide no guaranteed hours for workers, yet require them to be available to work if called upon. Employers will be required to provide reasonable compensation to workers in such arrangements, and also be required to give workers either reasonable notice or compensation when cancelling a shift.

The law changes in April aim for safer workplaces and more satisfied workers – but failure to comply will likely come at a hefty cost for any employers caught out. Compliance will be expected from day one. If you have any concerns about your compliance with the new rules, the employment law team at WRMK is always happy to assist.