As the Government ramps up enforcement of law-flouting employers, discussions about how best $9 million can be spent to prevent worker exploitation continues. Teuila Fuatai reports
Each year, Community Law centres take on more than 7000 cases alleging illegal employer behaviour against workers.
According to Darryn Aitchison of the Auckland Community Law centre, the increased number of employment-related cases has coincided with a depletion in the role of labour inspectors, particularly in the last five years.
News that the Labour-led Government plans to invest $9 million in the Labour Inspectorate over the next three years and increase its inspectors from 60 to 110 is a welcome relief. But is it enough?
Aitchison said a shift in the investigative and prosecution focus of the labour inspectorate in recent years has been particularly difficult for those whose minimum employment standards were not being met.
“Employment-related legal issues also connect to other legal issues such as financial, tenancy and immigration legal issues. For example, someone may not have received holiday pay, or not be receiving the minimum wage, so they will also be someone experiencing financial hardship, and may be unable to pay their rent.”
Stemming those types of “flow-on effects” under a labour inspectorate approach that concentrated on serious cases of exploitation, and systemic violations of the law was difficult, Aitchison pointed out.
“It used to be that all [Community Law] centres could refer individual clients to the labour inspector to have their issue investigated. That change of focus from the labour inspectorate, over the last five to six years, has seen a lot more work fall to Community Law centres and just a lot more cases not being resolved in accordance with minimum employment standards.”
“It’s an access to justice issue that’s not being funded at the moment – either the labour inspectorate needs to pick it up or Community Law could pick it up, but we would need to be funded to do that work.”
Ideally, renewed investment over the next three years, combined with the increased number of labour inspectors, would assist in addressing that inequity in access.
Aitchison also believed that alongside the “broadening” in the Labour Inspectorate’s role, businesses needed to consider a more sustainable approach to compliance with labour laws.
“In our experience, there are two types of employers – employers that want to be good employers but don’t understand what their obligations are, and employers which wilfully disregard their obligations.”
Employers who fell into that first category were often caught out because of improper advice and systems regarding workers’ obligations.
“If you’re running a business, having good legal advice around your employment obligations is just a compliance cost that all businesses should factor into their budget,” Aitchison said.
Enforcement and prosecution of businesses which wilfully flouted labour laws by the labour inspectorate not only held those employers to account, but also provided an incentive for “well-meaning employers who are getting things wrong… to get their house in order”.
Richard Wagstaff, president of the Council of Trade Unions, said the increased labour inspectorate funding and staff showed the new Government understood the severity of labour law violations facing workers and businesses.
“It’s a good start. Our workforce is becoming increasingly precarious. We have a lot more people who are casual employees, we have a bigger migrant workforce and we have less unionisation than we did going back decades. All of those things conspire to mean there’s far less protection for workers and their rights in the workplace,” Wagstaff said.
Progress of the labour inspectorate also needed to be assessed regularly, to ensure the resources were being used effectively, he said.
“It’s likely that [more employers would be found in breach of the law], but that’s certainly not our goal,” he said yesterday.
“Hopefully, the impact of the inspectorate will be to get more employers to comply, rather than having to find employers deliberately not complying. We would prefer if everyone learnt what they should be doing, and get on with doing it.”