Friday, 21 July 2017

The Continuing Evolution of Workplace Relations Policy

Workplace relations have come a long way in the last 100 years. The Canterbury Employers’ Chamber of Commerce is a combination of the old Christchurch Chamber of Commerce and the Canterbury Employers’ Association. The Canterbury Employers’ Association has a long legacy of being involved in collective wage bargaining and setting terms and conditions with the unions to optimise workplace relations.

Before the existence of the Employers’ Association there were various other entities involved in setting awards and reaching agreement on workplace policy. Recently when digging through the Chamber’s archives I came across the New Zealand Awards, Recommendations and Agreements made under the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act for the year 1916 and published in 1917 (exactly 100 years ago). These treaties were produced annually and this 1916 document is 1,415 pages of detailed recommendations, agreements, awards and interpretations as applied to the workplace.

In those days employment conditions were highly prescriptive, wages were determined down to the last penny and every detail of conditions of employment was prescribed industry by industry on a regular basis.

An example is the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Award covering workers in private hotels, oyster-saloons, restaurants, tea and luncheon rooms and refreshment rooms. The wages were prescribed at around £2 per week and interestingly for females in this sector, the prescription was that they would be paid in proportion of not less than three-fourths of the rates prescribed for males in similar capacities.

Under the Northern District Flax Mills Employees Award there were some interesting provisions as to smoking. It states that workers shall not smoke cigars or cigarettes in the swamp and shall not smoke at all when handling or in the proximity of dry fibre. The employer shall have the right to fix the places for smoking and when fixed a worker shall not smoke in any other place and they shall use pipe caps if supplied by the employer.

Under the District Bakers and Pastry Cooks Award there was a consideration of the introduction of machinery relating to automatic bakeries. The Court of Arbitration stated that it had always been opposed to night baking and if the concessions asked for by the representatives of automated bakeries were to be conceded they would have to be considered for all master bakers in order to place all competitors in the industry on an equal footing, the impact of which would be to reintroduce night baking with all its evil consequences to the workers. The consideration goes on to say that the Court would if practical prohibit all night baking to be effective which would be to compel consumers to accept bread which, if not quite so palatable as newly baked bread would probably be more wholesome.

These are examples of highly prescriptive policy where workers and employees were in largely adversary employment relationships requiring extraordinary restrictive and detailed documentation around workplaces. Things have changed in the last 100 years. The relationship between employers and employees is now one of inclusivity, collaboration, transparency and working towards common interests. We need to continue to evolve workplace relationship policies in modern working environments and the open domestic and international economic conditions of the 21st century.

It is important that we all stay attuned to the need to accommodate people in good working conditions and rewarding all people appropriately, regardless of gender or the nature of their work. This is best achieved by all working towards agreed objectives, not by imposing restrictive “one size fits all” divisive workplace relations in a modern economy.

In an election year we all need to keep our eye on that goal. 

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