SUE KEDGLEY (Green)
: I move,
That the Employment Relations (Flexible Working Hours) Amendment Bill be now read a first time.
At the appropriate time I intend to move that the bill be considered by the Transport and Industrial Relations Committee. The tension of trying to juggle paid work and family responsibilities is taking a huge toll on families today. As dual-income families become the norm, and as more and more parents are in the workforce even when their children are young, employees are feeling overloaded, tired, and chronically stressed from trying to juggle full-time work and care for their children at the same time. The problem is especially acute here in New Zealand, where we have a long working hours ethic in our culture and one of the highest proportions of workers putting in long hours of paid work of any country in the OECD.
In recent surveys a majority of employees said they were working longer hours than previously, that they were feeling under constant stress, that their lives were out of balance, and that the relentless pressure was having a debilitating effect on their lives and those of their families. Employees said that they were able to spend less and less time with their families, that the limited time they were able to spend at home was corroding their relationships with their partners and children, and that they were missing out on crucial stepping stones and key milestones in their children’s development.
Clearly, that sort of long working hours culture discriminates against employees with families who want to work more flexible working hours that better suit the needs of their families. It is no wonder that so many employees with children simply give up the struggle and drop out of the labour market, because they cannot find ways to combine paid work and the demands of looking after young children. It is interesting that one in three mothers do not come back into the workforce after having children, when their children are young. Some employers have responded to the call for better work-life balance and more flexible working patterns, and they do offer their employees flexible working options. Treasury, the Buller District Council, EDS (New Zealand) Ltd, and Deloitte are very good examples of that. Despite all the rhetoric we have heard in recent years about work-life balance, those employers are the exception rather than the rule. Not nearly enough is being done to encourage and support parents who want to work flexibly when their children are young.
It is interesting—and Mr Mapp may be interested to know this—that a Department of Labour survey of work-life balance found that most New Zealanders it surveyed felt reluctant even to broach the subject of flexible working hours with their employers, because they were afraid that they would be penalised for doing so. That is why Governments are stepping in to protect employees who want to have choice about how they balance work and family life, especially when their children are young. Germany, Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands all provide employees with a legal right to request more flexible working arrangements, or to reduce their working hours. The United Kingdom has introduced legislation that gives employees with young or disabled children the right to request flexible working hours, and this bill is based on that. Other Governments are actively promoting flexible working hours. Clearly, New Zealand is lagging behind in failing to encourage more flexible working conditions for employees, especially when their children are young, and that is why I have drafted this bill.
The aim of the bill is modest: to change workplace culture so that employers more readily accommodate the needs of parents with young children to work more flexible working hours, by giving employees with children under 5, or with disabled children under 18, a statutory right to request flexible working arrangements. It places a legal duty on employers to consider any such request seriously. It also enables employers to refuse a request under certain circumstances, such as the inability of an organisation to reorganise itself or to recruit additional staff. Mothers, fathers, guardians, and foster parents will all be eligible to apply, provided that they have worked for an employer for 6 months. They can apply to change the hours they work and the times of day they are required to work. They can apply to work part-time, work compressed hours, work a 4-day working week, and so on.
The right to work flexibly, as enshrined in this bill, is designed to meet the needs of employers as well as employees. Far from dictating to employers, as Wayne Mapp suggested in a press release last week, its intention is to provide a framework to negotiate reduced working hours that are mutually agreed to, and to find a solution that works for both the employer and employee. The employee will make a written request, pointing out the working pattern that he or she wants to work. He or she will then meet the employer, discuss it, and consider alternatives if the request cannot be met. Employers will have a statutory duty to make a formal business assessment of the request, and will only be able to refuse a request where there are clear business reasons for doing so, based on designated criteria. An employee whose request is turned down can challenge that through an appeals procedure. But hopefully, recourse to mediation will be rare, because studies show that flexible working arrangements not only make life easier for parents and children but have significant benefits for employers and the economy as a whole.
Numerous studies have shown that flexible working arrangements make employees more satisfied, more motivated, and more productive, and that they reduce absenteeism, stress-related health problems, workplace accidents, staff turnover, and therefore recruitment costs. They enable employers to attract and retain employees with valuable skills and knowledge who would otherwise leave the workplace to care full-time for their families. A recent review of the British legislation that this bill is based on found that it has been very successful in changing workplace culture and making it more family-friendly for employees with young children. The British legislation is so successful that the Labour Government there has promised to review it and to extend it to cover parents with children under 12, and employees with elderly and other dependents. We would welcome an extension of the provisions of this bill, and I hope that that will be considered in the select committee. In England, since the legislation has been introduced, about one million British parents have made a request to work flexibly. Eight out of 10 requests have been granted, and a compromise has been reached in a further one out of 10 requests.
Both the nurses union and the Council of Trade Unions have come out in support of this bill. They say that the pressure to balance work and family life is a major problem for many workers, and that flexible working arrangements would overcome one of the key barriers to women pursuing a career. The Prime Minister announced recently that she wants there to be more women in the paid workforce. Making paid work more flexible and enabling parents with children to work more flexibly, or part-time, would help to achieve that goal.
National has suggested that the bill could create an environment whereby employers would not hire women, because they would be more likely to require flexible working hours. That is a nonsensical suggestion. It is precisely the argument that was used against equal pay, against pay equity, and against paid parental leave, and it has not come to pass. It has not happened in the United Kingdom and it will not happen here, because the entitlement applies equally to men and women, and—this will be a surprise for Wayne Mapp—as many men want to spend more time with their families as there are women who want to do that. I am confident that those fears will not be realised, and that employers will find that flexible working hours are something to embrace—that they will enhance workplace productivity and make workplaces more attractive to employees.
Flexible working hours make sense for individual families, for employers, and for society as a whole. As a society, it makes sense that we help parents to spend more time with their families when children are young. It makes sense that we modernise our workplaces and change our workplace culture so that it is a results-driven, not a work-to-clock, culture. It makes sense that we redesign work in a way that responds to employees’ needs and gives employees some choice over the actual time they work. That makes sense in terms of the health of families, the health of children, and the health of the nation. As I have said, the aim of the bill is a modest one, and we would like to see the bill extended in the select committee. We are astonished that parties that claim to be family-friendly, such as United Future and National, would turn down such a modest, simple request to establish a right for parents with children to work more flexibly and to work part-time. I think that many New Zealanders would be utterly astonished at why those parties should be opposing this bill.
Hon MARK GOSCHE (Labour—Maungakiekie)
: The Government will be supporting the referral of the Employment Relations (Flexible Working Hours) Amendment Bill to the Transport and Industrial Relations Committee so that public submissions can be sought. It is not committed, however, to supporting the bill beyond that stage. This Government is prepared to listen to the public on these issues and to take their views on board. There is no better place to do that, in respect of this bill, than in a select committee.
This is a family-friendly Government that has introduced a wide range of policies designed to help working families. The major package coming into effect this week, Working for Families, follows on from previous policies that introduced paid parental leave, fairer holidays legislation, affordable quality childcare, and so much more.
The select committee will have to listen to the submissions I am sure will come from employers, employee organisations, and individual New Zealanders. It was very interesting to hear Dr Wayne Mapp say that because this bill is supported by nurses and teachers, it must be bad. I ask him to repeat that statement when he gets up on his hind legs again, because nurses and teachers will be very interested to hear the National Opposition spokesperson on industrial relations say that they should be ignored and that their views and wishes on these issues are bad. They are the people who make this country so good. Where would we be without nurses and teachers? The National Party would have us do without them, because it will scrap as many jobs as it can if it cuts taxes as it says it will.
We on this side of the House are prepared to listen to the arguments. It may not be necessary to enact legislation to achieve the measures in this bill. Many employers realise that with a Government as good as this one that is bringing unemployment down so low, they do have to be more flexible about the working environment and to go the extra mile to get parents to the job. That may mean shorter hours and more flexible working relationships, but it may not require legislation. However, let us hear the arguments. Let us look at the facts and not judge just on bias and ignorance like the National Party and others who oppose the bill.
I, like Sue Kedgley, am always interested in hearing from the so-called family values side of the House. The National Party always goes on about family values and how important it is to uphold them. Let us think back. When I was growing up I and my brothers and sisters played sport and engaged in all sorts of activities, and I could almost guarantee that every week my mum and dad would be there alongside all the other mums and dads, either at practices during the week or at the games on Saturdays and Sundays when we played rugby league, cricket, soccer, or whatever it might have been. When my children, who are now in their 20s, were growing up, most of the time I or my wife could be there. Sometimes we coached the sports teams or organised the activities. A lot of parents were able to do what we did as our children were growing up. Members should go out there now and see what it is like on the sports fields of New Zealand. Members should ask themselves why very few children engage in sporting and other activities. It is not because they do not want to; it is because it is now extraordinarily difficult for families to be involved.
Dr Wayne Mapp: Ha, ha!
Hon MARK GOSCHE: Wayne Mapp laughs at that, because he has no connection with that part of New Zealand, with ordinary New Zealanders who want to be there with their children and enjoy the opportunity to be on the sidelines, to be there for rehearsals, to run the Scout troops, to be part of ballet classes, and to do all the things that I did for my sons and daughters and that my mum and dad did for us—all nine of us, or seven of us, or however many were living in the house at the time. The National Party has no connection with that. It knows nothing about it. National Party members mock this sort of legislation and say that it does not even have the right to go before a select committee.
The Government says we should hear what New Zealanders have to say on this bill. We will make a judgment on whether legislation is required, but New Zealanders really feel strongly about this stuff. We want a workforce that is flexible. We now work 7 days a week, 24 hours a day in this land. What suffers as a result is the family cohesion that I grew up with, that my children grew up with, and that today’s children are missing out on. That is what I talk about when I talk about family values. It is not about dollars and cents, production, and so on in isolation. We need a complete society.
I think bills like this are very healthy and should be supported. That is why the Government will support the referral of this bill. It sits alongside a whole lot of measures we have already introduced. We want it to go to the select committee. We will see what happens within that select committee before we commit any further on this legislation.
Dr WAYNE MAPP (National—North Shore)
: That was a speech from a tired old unionist—so tired that Mr Tamihere had this to say about him: “Mark Gosche never delivered for them, so they’re bringing in Maryann Street…”. Mr Gosche is so tired he could not even deliver. We heard Mr Gosche go on about family values, ballet, and so forth. Right throughout the electorate I serve, and right throughout the electorates all National members serve, we can go to sports fields, to ballet classes, and to an enormous range of activities that parents support. Mr Gosche is simply not telling the truth. I guess that is why Labour has had to bring Maryan Street in. She is a militant unionist, but I guess Labour thinks that at least she provides better value than Mr Gosche.
It is extraordinary to hear the justification given for this bill, because it is actually a bill in search of a problem. The problem the Green Party talks about simply does not exist. I guess the one thing we can say about the New Zealand workforce today more than at any other time is that it is flexible, open, and dynamic, and that people make a whole variety of choices—choices that, in fact, meet their particular needs. When I listen to the ultra-leftists that the Greens are, it seems to me that they have never heard of negotiation, flexibility, choice, or the practical experience of people in the workforce. That does not surprise me, because the Green Party and the Labour Party are chock-full of unionists and people who simply have never had to negotiate in small business. In small businesses up and down this country, people make arrangements to suit their needs.
Let us look at the real facts rather than the allegations. The number of women in the workforce—and, to be honest, I guess we are largely talking about women here—has increased 16.1 percent in the last 4 years. Those women are making choices that suit their particular circumstances. A large amount of that increase involves part-time work. Who takes part-time work? It is mothers with children at home. They choose a flexible approach that meets their family needs. We do not need legislation to achieve that particular outcome.
The Government and the Green Party refer to Europe. Europe is their mantra and mentor. We have heard about all sorts of European countries, and Britain is one of them. There is a reason why they choose Europe. They do so because it is the European centralist, bureaucratic model that they admire. That model is all about low productivity, high taxes, and European decline. That is what it is about—European decline. This Government loves the European model. This Government would ally itself with the European model on every single option that it can choose. Unfortunately, it is voting on the wrong side of history. [Interruption]
Simon Power: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am quite happy to sit on this side of the House and indulge in a bit of jousting with Government members—that is the custom of this place—but a comment made by the “Associate Minister for Communications and Power Lines” was completely unacceptable. If Dr Mapp did not take offence, I certainly did. The Government whip has also made comments indicating that it was unacceptable. The Minister should be made to withdraw and apologise.
The ASSISTANT SPEAKER (H V Ross Robertson): The Minister will stand, withdraw, and apologise.
Hon David Cunliffe: On the basis that—
The ASSISTANT SPEAKER (H V Ross Robertson): When the Minister stands he just withdraws and apologises, with no comment.
Hon David Cunliffe: I withdraw and apologise.
Dr WAYNE MAPP: I guess that is the sort of comment that causes Mr Tamihere to have such opprobrium for that particular Minister. The trouble with this legislation is that it is a bureaucratic, centralised solution to a non-existent problem. I guess it is not surprising that the Green Party chooses the European model, and I guess it is not surprising that the Labour Party chooses the European model. Those are countries with low productivity, failing economies, and low growth. National aspires to a country with high productivity and flexible negotiations—situations in which people can make real choices. That is why this bill is simply not necessary.
HELEN DUNCAN (Labour)
: I am pleased to stand and support this bill. The Government is proud to be a family-friendly Government, and it is therefore happy to support this bill going to the select committee. The ideas in it seem good, and should be subject to public scrutiny. Then we can see whether we need to go forward with it.
The previous speaker demonstrated, yet again, his utter contempt for the working people of New Zealand. At least today he did not repeat his scurrilous comments about the teachers and nurses of this country. But it is quite clear that he has no sympathy whatsoever for the hard-working families of New Zealand who are trying to juggle the commitments of their working lives, and balance that with giving real support to their children in their educational and recreational activities.
As I said, this Government—unlike the Government of the previous speaker—is a family-friendly Government. We have made huge commitments to families. Since we introduced the paid parental leave scheme in 2002, we have increased the entitlements each year, and from the end of this year eligible parents will get 14 weeks’ paid parental leave. I know that Sue Kedgley supports those measures. The Working for Families package is designed to reduce the barriers to work and to ensure that people are better off working. It also ensures that families are able to give their children the best possible start in life. The Working for Families package does make a huge difference to the lives of a great many New Zealand families. Of course, from 2007 there will be 4 weeks’ holiday for all working people, and that is another thing that will make a difference to family life. We have put fairer sickness and bereavement leave provisions into our industrial relations legislation, as well. It makes a huge difference to families in times of stress just to have the right to a decent amount of leave. We have put in place fairer public holiday rates so that people who work a public holiday while everyone else is off on holiday at least get a little bit extra to compensate them for that work. What we have done is all about restoring the fairness for working people that was taken away under the 9 years of National Government in the 1990s. We are committed to affordable, quality childcare, to enable parents who wish to work to do so knowing that their children have good-quality childcare. Those things we have done.
However, we are still quite prepared to look at Sue Kedgley’s bill, and if there is a lot of support for it from the public at large, then we can support it through. It looks like a good idea, and we are prepared to give it a go.
PETER BROWN (Deputy Leader—NZ First)
: Let me say from the word go that we agree with much of what the last speaker said, and of what the Hon Mark Gosche said earlier. We believe that parents should spend more time with their children. But we have looked at this bill inside out, and not one person has made any representation to us on the matter it deals with, at all.
Simon Power: Not one?
PETER BROWN: Not one.
Simon Power: It’s a non-problem.
PETER BROWN: It is a non-problem. I say to those members over there—and I respect their sincerity—that this is a nation of small employers, and that those employers have families and need a bit of consideration in industrial relations areas. This bill would impose on them quite some added responsibilities. I have quite a few friends who are employers, and I do not know of one of them being totally inflexible when it comes to the concerns or the welfare of their staff.
Dr Wayne Mapp: That’s the reality.
PETER BROWN: That is the reality, as my colleague said. Voluntary flexibility is far better than imposed flexibility. The explanatory note of the bill states—and this scares me witless: “Parents will be given two weeks to appeal in writing against the decision,”—that is, a decision that goes against them—“and set out the reasons for the appeal. Where cases cannot be resolved in the workplace, binding mediation and arbitration will be available, and the opportunity for an employee to take a case to the Employment Tribunal.” That will impose a lot of restrictions and costs on small employers.
Sue Kedgley: It happened in the UK.
PETER BROWN: People from the UK have come to me as their first port of call, because I have been out here for 40 years and they see me as having made a success of my life in New Zealand. They tell me: “You wouldn’t want to go back there now, Peter. You would not survive.” That is what they are telling me. I suggest that the member talk to a few people and ask them why they have come here from the UK. She should not quote the UK to me as the be-all and end-all of everything.
This bill makes the assumption that a significant number of employers are inflexible and uncaring, and just want to impose their will on their staff, no matter what. That is not true in New Zealand. One of the attractions of this country is that employers here work in, to a very large degree, with their staff. This country is a classless society compared with the UK. That is the difference in the UK, which Sue Kedgley talks about. The UK might need a little bit of legislation—I do not know, and I will not comment on it. But my experience of this country—and it is a long experience—is that employers here are very, very mindful of the needs of their staff and the needs of the families of their staff. I hear very, very regularly things that impress me about New Zealand and New Zealand’s attitude to families. I have to say that the Hon Mark Gosche was wrong on one point.
Hon Mark Gosche: Just one!
PETER BROWN: He is wrong on one point. From time to time I go to watch youngsters play soccer. I know this will amaze the member, but I am now on the sideline as a grandad, not a father. I know that the member will find that hard to believe. But I can tell him that hundreds of parents are out there on the sidelines—and I have to get in a little plug for soccer, because it is the biggest sport in this country in terms of youngsters participating.
Hon Mark Gosche: I hope it’s not Newcastle United.
PETER BROWN: I hope it is not Newcastle United, too. I think the less we say about that the better. All I am saying is that parents are still taking a keen interest in their children’s activities. I believe that there is plenty of scope in this country for parents to go to their employers and say they want to change their working hours a little. I can tell members that if we pass this bill, then there will be employers who are forced into saying that a person is not employable, because he or she does not fit in with the working hours. There will be discrimination.