The Labour Party is justifiably celebrating a victory on legislation to end "zero-hour contracts" even if it is victory on a fine point of law.

The breakthrough came a year ago when the Government acknowledged the fundamental injustice of requiring an employee to be available for work eight hours a day, five days a week, with no certainty he or she would be given all those paid hours. It happens in small business probably more often than anybody knows. On slow days, some workers are liable to be told there is no more hourly pay for them that day.

Introducing the Employment Standards Legislation Bill last September, Workplace Relations Minister Michael Woodhouse said there was no place for employment contracts that required people to be available for work without a guarantee of work or compensation for their time. But the bill did not abolish "zero-hour" contracts. It permitted employment agreements to contain no specified hours if that suited both the boss and the worker. If the boss expected the worker to be available at certain hours, those hours would have to be stated in an agreement and a shift could not be reduced or cancelled without reasonable notice or reasonable compensation.

National thus wanted to retain "flexibility" for workplaces where it might have suited both sides not to be tied down to fixed working hours. Labour feared, probably rightly, that flexibility would work only for one side more often than not. Far from abolishing zero-hour contracts, the Opposition argued, the bill would give them legal status. It would turn an informal, largely unspoken, assumption on the part of employers into a statutory option. The Greens and New Zealand First agreed with Labour. More important, so did the Maori Party and Peter Dunne.


Without the numbers to pass the bill in its original form, National has given way. On Tuesday, Mr Woodhouse announced National would support an amendment put up by Labour at the second reading. Labour is jubilant. Its website proclaims a victory "for all those Kiwi workers required to be available for work but who have no work guaranteed". It says the changes mean employers can no longer demand anyone be available for work with providing a guarantee of hours and will not be able to cancel shifts at the last minute without providing reasonable compensation (which, to be fair, does not sound substantially different from the terms of the original bill).

One change will require the period of "reasonable notice" of a cancelled shift to be stated in the employment agreement, whereas National was going to leave "reasonable" to be defined by the Employment Court. It is surprising Labour would leave this crucial detail to be established in agreements made in small workplaces where staff may not have much negotiating strength. The union movement might have preferred to take a definitive case to court.

But whatever reasonable notice may turn out to be, the end of an employer's assumed right to send staff home without pay on a slow day is something to celebrate.