While The Standard readers know that the air traffic controllers were the excuse that Kate Wilkinson used to signal a repeal of parts of the 2008 Employment Relations Act (Breaks and Infant Feeding) Amendment Act, they are probably not aware of who is really going to be affected by their removal.
Kate Wilkinson was on the Transport and Industrial Relations Select Committee when the Service and Food Workers Union presented their submission in June last year. Union member and Indian immigrant worker James Joseph told his story of what life was like working in Wellington ethnic restaurants a different side of life that no one on the select committee had ever experienced. James came to New Zealand 11 years ago but it was some time before he discovered that most workers received breaks during their working day.
In one of the restaurants he worked split shifts, working from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and then from 4.30 p.m. to 11 p.m. or later. When he insisted on having a short break every three hours he was called a ‘troublemaker’ and sacked by his employer.
Despite being six months without work he raised the work break issue in his new employment. He thought he would be on safer ground here because he actually had a written employment agreement, something that had not been given him in his previous job. The Agreement even had a rest breaks clause:
‘The Employer can arrange Rest and Meal Breaks so that they do not cause disruption to clients, customers or production.’
He approached his employer about scheduling in some rest breaks and was told that it was not possible during the hours he worked because the restaurant was always too busy. After arguing with the employer about the intention of the clause James decided to schedule his own breaks and talked to his fellow workers about doing the same. The employer didn’t take long to react to this ‘insubordination’. He showed James the door.
James told the Select Committee that challenging these employers without the protection of the law was very difficult for workers such as himself.
‘Being an overseas worker is not easy when you have nowhere else to go; you don’t have a house; you don’t have a job; you don’t have anyone to talk to. We do need something. We are just killing ourselves.’
Unlike the other members of the Select Committee Kate didn’t react to James Joseph’s story but she did comment that she was concerned that if meal and rest breaks were put into law that those employers who were giving longer breaks may shorten them back to the minimum provisions in the law.
Prior to the passing of the rest breaks amendment last year the SFWU used to receive a lot of calls from workers such as James and parents of young workers who were horrified that no law existed to give their sons and daughters meal breaks. Since the law change and the publicity around it these calls have dried up.
If Kate Wilkinson has her way we will be going back to the sad old situation that existed then.