On 5 April employment lawyer Peter Cullen had an article in the Dominion Post on the employment law changes that came into effect on 1 April.

These included the extension of the 90-day trial period for new employees to all firms.

The article concluded: “The changes generally represent a shift of power to employers.”

In fact they represent no such thing.  The comment reflects the old ‘imbalance in bargaining power’ idea with its Marxist origins.

It’s not hard to see the fallacy.

Start with a world without any statutory provisions about so-called ‘unfair’ dismissals.  Then bring in such a rule.  What will happen?

Clearly something will change, because employers now face the risks and costs of being found to have unjustifiably dismissed an employee.  In the first instance the costs will fall on them.  But clearly they will have to shift them – in competitive markets they have no alternative if they are to maintain normal profits.  The costs will be shifted primarily to employees (or possibly consumers through higher prices).  In other words, employees will largely bear the ultimate costs of the provision through wages (or other benefits) that will be lower than otherwise, or unemployment will rise if the costs are not passed on.

This is just basic economics.  It is explained more fully in this study by US labour academic Charles Baird, ‘The Employment Contracts Act and Unjustifiable Dismissal: The economics of an unjust employment tax’, published by the Business Roundtable.

Baird estimates that, extrapolating from US data, the imposition of unjustifiable dismissal restrictions (which did not apply to around half the workforce prior to the ECA) worsened income inequality, lowered real wages by over 7 percent, and reduced employment by 1.5-3%.

Given these results, it is no surprise that where employees have the option of bargaining voluntarily for unfair dismissal procedures in contracts, few opt to take it up.

As in other markets, bargaining power varies at times in the labour market depending on whether labour is in short or plentiful supply.  That helps labour markets to clear.  But employers have no systematic bargaining power, and recent law changes have done nothing to increase it.