Helping employers recoup training costs
Bonding agreements can be an incredibly useful tool for ensuring employers can recoup costs incurred for training staff.
Used improperly however, bonding agreements may be unenforceable and – in some circumstances – be a clear breach of the Wages Protection Act 1983 (WPA). We look at two of the most common issues with bonding agreements as well as what should be considered for enforceable agreements.
What is a bonding agreement?
A bonding agreement is a benefit given to an employee where you agree to pay for some or of the all the cost of further training in exchange for your employee agreeing to stay under your employment for a period of time; this is usually around one to two years after the training is complete. The result is an upskilled employee who has better qualifications and future employment prospects, and your business has the benefit of a more valuable employee who usually will stay for the period of the bonding agreement.
These arrangements can be recorded in the original employment agreement or in a subsequent document both the employer and employee sign which records the bonding agreement as a formal variation to the employment agreement that is already in place.
Wages Protection Act 1983
Section 12A of the WPA states that an employer may not ‘seek or receive any premium’ for employing a person. In a 2016 case, it was found that bonding employees to recoup recruitment costs, such as skills testing, was considered a breach of s12A as it was the employer who primarily benefitted, not the employee. Any bonding agreement for training, testing or costs incurred by the employer only would likely
be considered a breach of the WPA.
Workplace health and safety
All employers are responsible for ensuring that they provide a safe environment for their employees. For most businesses this means that, at a minimum, each workplace must have some staff trained in first aid. In more dangerous workplaces there must be additional measures, such as training employees in handling combustible materials or dangerous goods.
As an employer, if you have insufficient staff members trained in workplace safety and are required to provide training to up-skill existing staff in this area, it is unlikely that you could use a bonding agreement to recoup the cost of that training, as it is your responsibility to provide a safe workplace in the first instance. If any additional training goes above and beyond the requirement for safety, and significantly improves your employee’s future employability, a bond may be valid.
Making clauses work
There are many circumstances in which bonding agreements are appropriate and enforceable.
When considering a bonding agreement, the following three basic principles are a good guideline.
- Mutual benefit: the additional training being undertaken by your employee must be of a mutual benefit to you both. Another acceptable, but rare, situation is where the additional training is of sole benefit to your employee, such as up-skilling in a different field while continuing to work in the current role.
- Transparency of cost: costs should be agreed as much as possible up-front, including how and when those costs will be repaid if your employee leaves during the bonded term. If the costs cannot be recorded clearly in the agreement, for example accommodation costs while on training, your employee should be given reasonable notice of the cost before it is incurred and the opportunity to opt out or for you both to choose a cheaper alternative.
- Reasonability: the bonding term and repayment schedule should be reasonable in consideration of the costs incurred by the business. For the majority of bonding terms, a reasonable timeframe is somewhere between six months and two years, though there are certainly some circumstances where longer bonding terms are appropriate.
Like many elements of employment law, bonding agreements are very case specific. This means that in this article, we cannot cover all the issues that arise with them. Any issues in the workplace such as harassment or constructive dismissal can shake the foundation of a bonding agreement. Even when an agreement is considered enforceable, there is no guarantee you will be able to recover the funds from an employee who leaves your business.
If you are considering a bonding agreement, whether you are an employer or an employee, please contact us to discuss your specific needs.
 Labour Inspector v Tech 5 Recruitment Limited  NZEmpC 167 EMPC 114/2016.
Unfair contract terms regime extended to small business contracts
The Fair Trading Amendment Act 2021, which was passed into law in August, bans unconscionable conduct in trade and prohibits businesses from having unfair contract terms in their small business contracts.
The Act amends the Fair Trading Act 1986 in two key ways.
- Unconscionable conduct: The legislation prohibits unconscionable conduct in trade. It does not define what ‘unconscionable conduct’ is, but it does provide a list of factors for the court to consider when assessing unconscionable conduct, including:
- The relative bargaining power between the person engaging in the conduct and the person affected by the conduct
- The extent to which the trader and an affected person acted in good faith, and
- Whether unfair pressure or undue influence was used.
- Unfair contract terms: The Act extends the existing protections against unfair contract terms in standard form consumer contracts to include small business contracts.
The legislation defines this as a contract for the provision of goods or services between businesses where the value of the relationship between the businesses is less than $250,000 (including GST).
These two changes will come into force on 16 August 2022. This gives businesses just under one year to review their small business contracts to ensure they comply with the new requirements. The Commerce Commission is expected to release guidance on what unfair terms might look like for small business contracts.
Be aware, however, that some minor changes in the legislation are already in force.
If you would like some guidance on how this legislation affects your business, please feel free to contact us.
Many welcome new sick leave provisions
One employee’s sick leave may have doubled, but another employee’s sick leave may still only be five days. How does this work?
On 24 July 2021, minimum employee sick leave entitlements increased from five days to 10 days per year. Key points for employers are below.
When does the entitlement start? Not all employees will get the increase in sick days at the same time. Employees will get an extra five days’ sick leave when they reach their next entitlement date. This is either after they reach six months’ employment or on their existing anniversary.
For example, if your employee’s anniversary date was 10 June, they become entitled to 10 days’ sick leave on 10 June 2022, but until then, their entitlement remains at five days.
What remains the same?
- Employees who already get 10 or more sick days a year will not be affected by this change
- The maximum amount of unused sick leave that an employee can be entitled to accrue remains at 20 days, and
- The change applies to all employees whether they are full-time or part-time.
Remember, it’s your obligation as an employer to ensure you’re aware of your employees’ entitlements.
Changes to the retention money regime for construction contracts
The new Construction Contracts (Retention Money) Amendment Bill proposes to change the way contractors hold retention money under construction contracts.
The current regime allows contractors to mingle retention money with working capital, which can result in subcontractors missing out on money owed to them if the contractor goes into liquidation. This happened in the liquidation of Mainzeal Property and Construction Limited in 2013.
The proposed legislation aims to put clear rules in place around how retention money is to be held to provide protection for subcontractors.
Key changes: The Bill proposes that contractors must:
- Place retention money on trust as soon as possible and keep it separate from other money or assets, and
- Hold retention money in a trust account in a registered bank in New Zealand or in the form of complying instruments (such as an insurance policy or a guarantee).
The Select Committee is expected to report on the Bill in November 2021. Contractors will need to be prepared for the changes when the Bill passes, as failure to comply could result in significant fines.
 Holidays (Increasing Sick Leave) Amendment Act.
We all need to do our bit to reduce carbon emissions and look after the planet better than we have previously
In late March, the Climate Action Toolbox was launched in a major collaborative effort involving the Sustainable Business Network, a number of government agencies and some private sector businesses.
The Climate Change Commission had identified a need for tools to help smaller businesses take action on climate change. Its goal is to help businesses create a tailored step-by-step plan they can use to reduce emissions.
Many small to medium-sized businesses want to do their bit, but are unsure on how to start or what could make the most impact. The Climate Action Toolbox provides tailored advice and support around moving people, moving goods, office operations, site operations and equipment, and designing and making products.
Businesses can work through a self-assessment to identify which areas are relevant to them. Under each area you can choose from a range of specific actions to improve the climate impact of your business. Activities range from limiting non-essential travel, using heating and cooling options efficiently, buying sustainable products, recycling and reducing what goes to the tip, buying products produced locally, using equipment efficiently and upgrading to cleaner technology where possible.
To find out more about how your business can reduce its carbon footprint, go here.
Keep employment agreements and policies up-to-date
Over the past 18 months, we have seen significant changes to employees’ hours of work, rates of remuneration and the expansion of flexible working arrangements as businesses have adapted to the Covid economy.
With most sectors of our economy recovering, and despite some occasional changes in alert levels, both employers and employees should ensure that any agreed post-Covid terms of employment or changes to the workplace are accurately recorded in their employment documentation.
Changes to hours of work and remuneration
In 2020, a significant proportion of businesses reduced their employees’ hours of work and rates of remuneration in response to the economic impact of Covid and claimed the government wage subsidy.
While many employees have returned to their previous hours and rates of pay, there is still a significant number who have not. It is important that employees’ rates of pay and hours of work are formally recorded; this will help avoid uncertainty and clarify how long the new hours/pay are intended to stay in place. The best way to achieve this is to prepare a variation letter for them to sign and return. This sets out an employee’s new hours of work and/or remuneration. They should of course seek independent legal advice.
Working from home
Covid has been extremely disruptive to our traditional ideas of what it means to be ‘at work’ and has been a catalyst for many businesses to introduce, or expand, flexibility for their employees. The introduction of working from home means that your employee’s home should also be recorded as a place of work in their employment agreement. This re-classification, however, raises some other issues that should be worked through.
Health and safety is important. For home-based workers who can perform their roles remotely, the main issue is whether their home is adequately set up to be a place of work. For example, are their desk, chair and computer screens ergonomically correct? If not, you should consider whether your business is prepared to subsidise or cover the cost of purchasing this furniture.
We recommend you consider whether the health and safety provisions in your employment agreements are fit for purpose in light of your employees’ homes being treated as a place of work.
Another issue is working from home expenses, such as internet and phone usage. You may wish to consider whether a weekly/fortnightly allowance is appropriate to subsidise employees’ expenses when working from home. Tax consequences will also need to be taken into account.
You will also want to ensure that sensitive business information remains confidential despite being in your employee’s home, and to ensure you have policies in place to address these issues.
What ‘flexible working’ looks like for a particular workplace is a major consideration. While many employees appreciate the flexibility that comes with working from home, you must take into account how allowing a large proportion of staff to work that way impacts your workplace culture and cohesion.
We recommend employers consider introducing flexible working policies in consultation with their staff in order to identify how often their employees can work from home and the rules and expectations around how they will stay connected while they are out of the office.
With travel bubbles open (and sometimes closing) with Australia and the Cook Islands, both employees and employers must be mindful of the possibility of employees being unable to return from overseas trips due to unanticipated Covid outbreaks.
Employers should develop overseas travel policies, in consultation with staff, to establish the process for authorising or declining an overseas travel request. If overseas travel is allowed, employers should consider whether their employees should take their work computer with them (if they are capable of working remotely) so there would be minimal business disruption if they are unable to return for some time.
Covid has thrown a spanner in the works in the way we carry out our day-to-day business. It has, however, given us all an opportunity to work in different ways. It is important to ensure your employment documentation reflects your workplace’s new normal.
Government housing package: other notable points
The big ticket items of the government’s recent housing package included the extension to the bright-line test as well as landlords no longer being able to offset their tax with interest paid on their rentals. We have covered these two items here.
There are, however, a number of other features of the package that may make it easier for New Zealanders trying to get onto the property ladder and to help increase the housing supply.
Increases to income and price thresholds for First Home Grant
Since 1 April 2021, more New Zealanders can qualify for government assistance to buy their first home. Income thresholds for singles applying for the First Home Grant have increased from $85,000 pa to $95,000 pa as well as an increase for a couple’s combined income from $130,000 pa to $150,000 pa.
Similarly, the price thresholds for both new homes and existing homes in many areas of the country have also been increased. With the rapid rise in house prices leaving the scheme’s original house price caps desperately out of kilter from the real-time housing market, first home buyers have suffered. Some had to rely on parents for additional funding or others have been completely priced out of their local housing market where prices had risen well above the threshold for government assistance.
The increases vary between regions and differ depending on whether you are looking to buy a new or existing home. There is a full list of the changes to the house price thresholds in your region here. With more people now being eligible to apply for the First Home Grant to subsidise the purchase of their first home, we hope that more Kiwis will get the assistance they need to help get them on the property ladder.
Housing Acceleration Fund
Property developers will also get a helping hand from the government’s housing package. A $3.8 billion boost to development has been announced and will subsidise the cost of providing services and infrastructure to ‘build-ready’ land. In subsidising these significant upfront costs which often slow housing development, the government hopes to increase the supply of a range of affordable, public and mixed housing.
The Housing Acceleration Fund is available to a range of key stakeholders in both the private and public sector but it will rely on local government playing its part in opening up suitable land to allow more housing development projects to take place. Developers involved in housing development should speak to their local council first for more information about whether they are eligible for assistance from the fund or for what stages of housing development the fund is available.
Kāinga Ora Land Acquisition
The government continues to support affordable housing by lending Kāinga Ora an additional $2 billion to assist with land acquisition for social housing development projects. The increased capital is expected to see the rate of acquisition of land increase which, along with the funding boost for development of public and mixed housing, aims to increase the supply of housing across the country.
Finally, the apprenticeship subsidy scheme (Apprenticeship Boost) is extended for a further four months. Employers taking on apprentices can access a $1,000 per week wage subsidy for first year apprentices and $500 for second year. This extension will help ensure that enough skilled tradespeople are trained to take advantage of the government’s plans to increase housing supply by not only enabling a greater workforce to achieve the government’s affordable housing goals, but also by providing private developers with a sufficient pool of skilled workers to draw on to keep up with housing demand.
Whether you are a first home buyer trying to find your feet in the property market, a property developer looking for a financial boost to kick-start your latest housing development project or an employer with apprentices, the government’s housing package will help address the supply issues affecting the housing market and will give a financial leg-up for those working to increase supply.
A better-than-expected economic recovery after the scourges of Covid has enabled the government to propose significant investment in health and welfare, housing (particularly for Māori), infrastructure to rebuild from the impact of the pandemic and to continue to make this country safe from the virus. Continue reading
Mainzeal: lessons for directors
Mainzeal Property and Construction Ltd was a New Zealand construction company placed into liquidation in 2013. The liquidators brought proceedings against the directors of Mainzeal, alleging a breach of directors’ duties, including reckless trading and allowing Mainzeal to take on obligations that the company could not perform. The High Court found the directors were personally liable for reckless trading. The decision was appealed to the Court of Appeal.
Some practical tips
You arrive at work to find that files with sensitive commercial and client information held on your computers have been hacked. This is the situation the Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ) found itself in earlier this year. In January, the RBNZ encountered a data breach of its global file-sharing application Accellion FTA. This application was once used by the RBNZ and its stakeholders to share personal and commercially-sensitive information.
It is alarming to contemplate having to negotiate with hackers who have stolen your business information for ransom. All businesses can learn from the RBNZ’s incident to increase awareness of cyber security and minimise the risk of a hacker attack. Prevention is the best solution.
Install antivirus software
Antivirus software helps detect, quarantine and remove malicious software from computers. Although Windows 10 comes with Windows Defender built-in, this only provides a baseline level of protection. Hackers are constantly inventing new viruses and threats, and it’s important to have up-to-date antivirus software. It’s worth paying for reputable antivirus software; free antivirus software programs can be fake and/or harbour viruses.
Use a virtual private network (VPN)
If you connect a device to free public Wi-Fi networks at, say, local cafes, you’re running a business risk. If hackers access that network, they can see everything you do on the internet, including logins and passwords. A VPN helps to protect you from these risks. A VPN provides online privacy, anonymity and security by creating a private network connection. Like antivirus software, it is worth paying for VPN software to ensure you receive a higher quality product.
Implement patch management
Patch management ensures that all operating systems and software on your business computers are up-to-date so the likelihood of a known security risk being exploited on your computers is reduced.
Although it is tempting to delay notifications that say ‘Windows needs to restart your computer to install the latest update’, installing those updates is critical to maintain security.
Older operating systems such as Windows 7 are easier to hack than the later version (Windows 10) because Microsoft no longer provides updates and support has ended. As a result, there are known security vulnerabilities which have not been fixed.
Regularly back up data
Your IT systems, including all data, should be backed up to a secure location, so that business can be restored quickly if it is cyber-attacked or there is another data loss event. Typically backup and business continuity plans are developed to ensure downtime is minimised. Often this will include backups taken at multiple times on any given day and at day end, and stored in multiple locations. Backups should be held for a reasonable period to avoid replicating viruses or other harmful codes.
Implement email filtering system
Emails are a big threat to cyber security. An email can purport to be from a genuine company but have fake credentials, could have been compromised by a hacker or have malicious attachments.
Downloading such emails could give a virus access to your computer. It is advisable to prevent programs from being run inside email attachments without permission. Email filtering system features are available with some Microsoft products but you may need to ensure these are turned on.
This technology stops web pages from being accessed that are known to contain harmful or restricted content. Web filters rely on constantly updated databases that record websites known to be associated with harmful or restricted content.
Train your staff
Staff members should be trained on cyber-attack risk and its protection. Even with the best measures in place, staff can unwittingly present security risks, such as clicking on email attachments from spam emails.
Don’t forget the basics
It’s easy to forget IT fundamentals. Have a screen lock. Create a complex password; ensure it is different for each account and change it frequently. Install two-Factor Authentication (2FA) that adds an extra layer of security by requiring users to provide two layers of information to gain access to a computer or network (such as inserting a password as well as code texted to your mobile phone).
Have an IT adviser
Unless your core business is IT, employ (or have on call) an IT adviser who can assess the risks to your business and implement the above steps. We also recommend you engage them periodically to undertake audits and to expose any weaknesses before a cyber-criminal exploits them.
Protect your business
Cyber security and cyber threats are now global problems. Failing to put in place measures to protect your business from these threats can easily lead to business failure. It should be a priority in your business planning.
Some options for offering shares
The Covid pandemic has paved the way for innovation, and many New Zealanders spent 2020 investing time and money into their new or existing businesses.
When raising capital to grow their business, however, many business owners find themselves limited by the size of their wallet. While interest rates are currently at an all-time low, trading banks’ lending terms are arguably the strictest in recent memory.
Vaping now treated the same as tobacco smoking
New Zealand laws have finally caught up with vaping (also called e-cigarettes) that have, for some time, enjoyed freedom from the country’s strict tobacco regulation.
Since 11 November 2020, however, all vaping products and behaviours must now be treated the same as for tobacco products and smokers. All businesses and employers should be aware of the changes to SmokeFree legislation; for retailers of any vaping-related products these changes are especially important.