Are you paying enough attention?

By Danielle Wright

It may pay to delve deeper when your pay-slip arrives to ensure you're paid what you're owed
Some New Zealand workers are being underpaid, especially in relation to holiday pay.
Some New Zealand workers are being underpaid, especially in relation to holiday pay.

You've got your pay-slip, but are you also privy to the detailed calculations involved to reach your wage figure? Even if you are, you might need a good understanding of the laws behind the calculations to know whether something is amiss.

"Payroll is a complex area with specialist knowledge and skills, but businesses can undervalue the role, which sometimes isn't paid (or well-trained)," says Council of Trade Unions President Richard Wagstaff.

"Too many businesses buy payroll software off the shelf and trust that it works for their business without configuring it properly, which is a big problem with Australian software, because their laws are very different."

As a result, some New Zealand workers are being underpaid, especially in relation to holiday pay, now covered by the Holiday Pay Act 2003. Changes to the law then meant businesses who didn't adjust their systems to meet the new requirements may have been unwittingly leaving their employees' wages short.

"The Government tried to address some of these issues in 2009 and 2010, but actually made things worse," says Wagstaff, who believes the Government should 'stop the clock' rather than give employees only six years to have the pay mistakes corrected.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) is responsible for administering the various Acts governing work and pay, including the Employment Relations Act 2000, the Holidays Act 2003, the Minimum Wage Act 1983 and the Wages Protection Act 1983, so, whether you're wondering about parental leave payments or holiday pay, the MBIE will be the right place to turn for advice, especially if you don't have a union representative to ask questions.

Visit www.employment. govt.nz or call the advice line (0800 20 90 20) for initial information. If discussions don't go well, ask about the free mediation service and low-cost court service (the Employment Relations Authority).

"MBIE also has about 50 labour inspectors tasked with enforcing the legal minimums (such as correctly paying holiday pay)," says Wagstaff. "However, there are huge problems, such as migrant exploitation and in some industries (such as dairy farming) there seems very few employers correctly paying holiday pay."

He says the Labour Inspectorate is "swamped and desperately needs more resources".

"The Government has added a few more over the past couple of years, but compared to the size of the problem, it's a drop in the bucket," says Wagstaff.

"The Labour Inspectorate should be dramatically scaled up."

Wagstaff believes New Zealand employers are letting staff down over the Holidays Act, especially for those working irregular hours and weekends, who may not be paid all they are owed.

According to Wagstaff, MBIE has estimated that as much as $2.3 billion could be owed to New Zealand workers due to this issue. He says employers have paid back about $350 million, so far. However, he believes no one really knows the scope of the problem.

And if you're hoping for support from your HR department to make sure you're being paid properly and to stick up for your rights, Wagstaff says that's not their role.

"The role of HR departments is not, and has never been, to stick up for worker's rights," says Wagstaff, who believes anti-union laws dropping union density to less than half what it was in 1991 hasn't helped workers being paid what they're entitled.

"They are there to manage the employment relationships and legal risks arising out of them for the employer, not the worker."

He states the example of the work done by the Police Association Union to get the Police to audit their payroll system, uncovering more than $55m owing to their members, as a successful campaign to combat the problem.

Thankfully, not all businesses are doing the wrong thing knowingly, so Wagstaff suggests employers should strongly consider getting their systems audited by independent accountants, which alleviates any conflict of interest by payroll providers, whose systems may be why there's a problem in the first place.

"Unions are also getting clued up on these issues, so if there's a union in the workplace, employers should talk to them," says Wagstaff.

"In most cases, the problems will not have arisen as a result of deliberate actions by the employer, but, they do have a responsibility to pay their workers correctly and fairly and to correct any historical underpayments."

He believes it's the employers who need to burden the responsibility of making sure the payments to their employees are correct.

"They need to ensure they have the systems in place that follow the law," says Wagstaff, "and pay working people what they are owed."

- NZ Herald

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