Thousands protest over proposed tea break cuts

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Thousands of workers across hundreds of workplaces nationwide are downing tools this morning to celebrate the tea break and protest proposed government employment law changes that will cut rest and meal breaks.

New Zealand Council of Trade Unions Secretary Peter Conway said over 900 workplaces, including schools, supermarkets, hospitals and factories had registered for this morning’s event. Employees at those places of work would be getting together with their colleagues for a morning tea/smoko/break to discuss why the break is important.

Conway said workers are “outraged” at the prospect of losing their tea break.

“Workers understand this law is designed to reduce their pay and attacks even the most basic work rights, like the tea break which is essential for rest, a chance to talk to workmates and important for health and safety. They are very worried about how this law will impact them and their families,” he said.

However, HRINZ National President Rachel Walker said while the specific requirement for rest and meal breaks were not routinely a problem in workplaces, the current legislation “has been found in some cases to restrict flexibility in the workplace, as in some roles it is not practicable to stop at a set time or at the legislated times.”

Currently, an employer is obliged to give employees a paid 10-minute break for every four hours worked in a stretch, plus a 30 minute meal break if the employee works more than four hours. It can be agreed when the breaks are taken, or spread evenly throughout the working day.

The proposed changes would allow an employer, where they believe they can’t provide breaks, make an employee work without any meal or rest breaks. However, if this was to occur they would be required to compensate the worker, for example with an extra allowance or by allowing the employee to leave work early.

“Agreement is expected between the parties if rest breaks will not be provided,” Walker said. “The employer would have to be prove a case that they ‘cannot reasonably provide… breaks’ to do otherwise, so it is not a case of the employer being able to simply stop providing breaks.

“Employers do have a responsibility under the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 to ensure the workplace is safe – this can include requirements for breaks and rest to combat fatigue.” 

Walker said if the proposed law changes come into effect it will be of interest to see if it does have an impact in practise or if it is a rarely used option and how parties determine what is a reasonable “compensatory measure”. 

Are you concerned by the planned changes to meal breaks? Tell us why or why not in the comments section below.


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