Employers - beware of the hooks

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Discipline and performance issues remain high on the list of calls to Federated Farmers 0800 legal helpline.

It can be a pitfall, and to help guide farmers through the process, Federated Farmers has compiled a range of contracts and agreements, as well as checklists.

Federated Farmers general manager sales and marketing Jeremy Blandford says the best advice is to sign a contract where each party clearly understand his or her role.

Federated Farmers get between 300 and 400 calls a month about employment issues, with most being on discipline and performance, as well the holiday act and clauses within contracts.

The disciplinary process should be understood thoroughly. Federated Farmers says a dismissal or an action taken against an employee can be held to be unjustified on the basis of procedure alone; any action needs to be both procedurally and substantively (the reason for your decision) justifiable and reasonable.

Every decision in the disciplinary setting is open to challenge. The personal grievance provisions of the Employment Relations Act 2000 allow an employee to challenge any decision or action taken by an employer.

Therefore it is important, to understand the mechanisms of discipline and the requirements of procedural fairness.

"If you think your disciplinary situation is particularly tricky or challenging in some way, a second and considered opinion can be extremely helpful; it may also highlight some of the intricacies of procedural fairness in your immediate circumstances.

"Federated Farmers of New Zealand encourages employers to seek advice before commencing any disciplinary process. The Federated Farmers of New Zealand Employment Advice team can assist you with this matter."

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment says some of the most common farm-related employment standards complaints they receive are:

Not having a signed employment agreement

An employment agreement is not just a legal requirement, but a hugely valuable document in setting out the terms of employment and helping to prevent later disputes. Many complaints received relate to hours of work, days off and disciplinary processes. This information must be contained in an employment agreement.

The ministry provides a helpful employment agreement builder on its website that will assist employers in meeting this requirement.

Record-keeping

Employers must keep records of hours worked where employees are paid by the hour or where the records are used to calculate wages. Ministry spokesperson Alastair Stewart says too many farm employers are not keeping these records.

Minimum wage

Farm employees work long hours. This in itself can be acceptable, provided it does not affect the health and safety of a workplace, however employers must make sure that their employees are paid at least the minimum wage, even when on a salary.

If an employee was to work such long hours that their salary-per-hour fell below the minimum wage, this would be illegal and must be rectified.

"Employers should also be aware that they cannot average out hours worked over time, such as more hours during high seasons and less hours during low seasons. Instead employees must be paid the minimum wage for each pay period."

For example, if an employee worked 70 hours in one week and was paid weekly, they must be paid at least the minimum wage for those 70 hours.

Accommodation disputes

Many farm employees live on-site and their accommodation is provided as part of their salary package. Alastair says they receive complaints that when an employment comes to an end, farm employers are deducting costs for home repair or cleaning costs from an employee's wage.

This is only acceptable if the possibility of such deductions are included as part of a deductions clause contained in the employment agreement and outlined with a degree of specificity. An agreement to allow for any deductions in general is not sufficient, instead the agreement should clearly outline possible deductions, such as repair costs for damage caused by the employee in the home.

"We would recommend employers consider separating accommodation from the employment agreement and instead using rental and bond arrangements that are available for standard rentals."

For Federated Farmers contracts, ring 0800 327 646. For guidelines from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, visit www.dol.govt.nz

 

- Hamilton News

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