The UN has recommended that the New Zealand government mandate for maximum working hours due to concerns for employees’ health and safety. According to a 2011 OECD report, 13% of New Zealanders work ‘very long hours’ (more than 50 per week) whereas the average in all other countries is 9%. The government has so far ignored the recommendation.
Eileen Brown, policy analyst – Council of Trade Unions, observed that the OECD figures were probably a conservative estimate. An earlier report from the 2006 New Zealand census put the figure at 22.68% of the workforce. “There are problems with the data, but we know that New Zealanders are working very long hours, and they’re working above the OECD average,” she said.
The situation entails two separate issues for Brown, the right to work in a healthy and safe environment, and the right to achieve work-life balance. And she described the government’s lack of action as ‘absolutely unsatisfactory’.
Brown recommended that high-risk industries include employees in developing special codes of practice and that the government institute a mandatory work-hour limit. “Minimum employment conditions are incredibly important for those vulnerable workers in high-risk industries, and where there’s precarious work and their health and safety risks are greater,” she argued.
Paul Mackay, employment relations policy manager – BusinessNZ, did not share Brown’s point of view. “Business would not be keen on government regulation of working hours,” he said.
Mackay argued that the prevalence of long working hours in New Zealand was a consequence, at least in part, of the economic conditions that have prevailed since the global financial crisis. “Long hours would be more sustainably managed by growing the economy above post-recession levels rather than imposing restrictions on employers,” he suggested.
A number of unintended consequences could result from capping maximum working hours, according to Mackay. He claimed that the European Union Working Time Directive, which limits working hours to 48 per week, had forced businesses to hire part-time workers. “France (which has a 35 hour week) and Spain in particular have found that the smaller number of full time jobs tends to favour males over females, as well as marginalising the youngest and oldest workers – not a positive outcome,” he explained.
On the other hand, Ken Shirley, CEO – Road Transport Forum, was comfortable with this type of legislation. “The trucking industry fully supports the need for such regulation of hours, providing there is a reasonable balance between safeguarding a driver’s health and welfare and enabling an efficient and productive, around the clock, road freight industry to operate,” he said.