100 Years of Mediation

  • Kate Wilkinson

Speech by Hon Kate Wilkinson, Minister of Labour, to commemorate 100 years of employment mediation, Parliament House, 30 June 2009.


Ladies and Gentlemen: a very warm welcome on this chilly Wellington evening.  

It is an honour to be with you here tonight to celebrate a century of effective employment mediation - an approach which has benefitted New Zealand's employees, employers and the country as a whole.

In the past 100 years, mediation processes have helped resolve workplace disputes by bringing common sense, goodwill and professionalism to the fore, as well as providing a safe environment for emotions to be expressed

In 1909 John Millar - one of my many predecessors in this portfolio - appointed New Zealand's first three conciliation commissioners - they were resident in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

These commissioners were the fore-runners of today's employment mediators. They chaired conciliation councils which were the first step in dealing with collective bargaining disputes.

Previously, many disputes had gone directly to the Arbitration Court. But the court became swamped by a flood of cases.  Disputes festered and strikes became more frequent as cases waited to be heard.

Conciliation was a new concept designed to take pressure off the Arbitration Court. Its principal advantage was that it recognised the power of facilitated discussion and problem solving.

It was and is based upon the premise that when parties can be brought together by an independent facilitator they will find it easier to air their differences, find common ground and work towards a solution. This was an important innovation. It saved time and prevented the build up of latent antagonisms that had become a feature of the slow moving Arbitration Court. It resulted in both the speedier resolution of workplace disputes and better and more enduring settlements - all achieved at less cost to all parties.

For more than 80 years after 1909 conciliation remained a key component of New Zealand's industrial relations system and remained largely unchanged until the 1970s when an industrial mediation service was established. At this time, employees covered by union-negotiated awards also gained the right to take personal grievances.

In 1987 the conciliation and mediation functions were combined into a new mediation service. Just four years later the Employment Contracts Act became law and this gave all employees the right to take personal grievances. The Employment Tribunal was then established to provide mediation and adjudication services.

Most recently, the Employment Relations Act 2000 created the current mediation services provided by the Department of Labour. This again separated mediation services from the adjudication services, now provided by the Employment Relations Authority.

In 2009 - 100 years after employment mediation was first created - the need for it remains as strong as ever, even though our 21st century workplaces are a world apart from those of our predecessors a century ago. Factories with huge smoke stacks that employed hundreds if not thousands of workers are less of a part of our landscape.

In 2009 most New Zealand workplaces are small and depend on technology and the brain power of their employees to produce highly-specialised products and services, often for world markets.

What they share with their predecessors of a century ago is the importance of team work and shared endeavour. If for any reason the flow of work is disrupted, the consequences can be serious and costly for everyone.

We know that work is all about human interaction. This requires workplace cultures based on good faith and trust. If employees and employers are to be productive their work must be underpinned by effective relationships based on mutual trust.

Differences and problems need to be freely aired. Sustainable and enduring solutions are the product of free and constructive discussion in which everyone has the opportunity to contribute freely.

Conflict is a normal part of life. However, if disputes remain unsettled, what are sometimes minor matters can be become serious and damaging. None of us want that. Therefore it is important that we work hard to resolves differences - where they happen.

But sometimes there are disputes that cannot be settled in the workplace - despite everyone's best efforts. This is when mediation comes into play. The best attribute of mediation is that the mediator is impartial. His or her job is not to take sides. Instead, a mediator uses his or her powers of listening to understand where people are coming from and to identify common ground.

Whether it is potential industrial action that has the capacity to cause major disruption to the country's economy, or an employee alleging they have been unfairly treated by their boss, the fundamentals of mediation remain the same.

Mediation is a process in which the participants, assisted by a mediator, isolate disputed issues in order to develop options, consider alternatives and reach agreements. The parties don't even have to be in the same room. Mediation can take place by e-mail by telephone or by tele-conferencing. It can be held in the workplace or at Department of Labour offices.

Overseas studies show that effective dispute resolution has big economic benefits. A recent British study shows Acas (the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service) saves the economy nearly £800 million a year. For employers, mediation is a big saver in terms of management time, while employees benefit from avoiding losses of earnings.

While similar research has not yet been carried out here, if it were, I would expect it to show similar benefits. Best of all, mediation is a free service available to both employers and employees and it has the capacity to produce speedier solutions when compared to most alternatives.

That is why mediation is still one of the most preferred dispute resolution methods. In 2008 almost 6,000 cases were referred to mediation, of which 80% were settled. This resolution rate has been maintained despite the number of requests for mediation rising by 26% between 2006 and 2008.

After 100 years, we can rest assured that we now have in place a well-functioning approach to dispute resolution. I am confident that it is an approach that will also continue to serve us well into the future, responding in innovative ways to emerging workplace needs.

Tonight is an opportunity to celebrate the integrity and professionalism of the mediators and conciliators who have contributed to this success. Their history and their collective skills are celebrated in the book I am pleased to launch tonight: Contemporary Mediation Practice: Celebrating 100 years of Employment Mediation.

Effective mediation is a process that requires a high degree of integrity and scrupulous impartiality. Training and temperament are crucial to maintaining high standards. This must be informed by good judgment and underpinned by a sound ethical foundation.

Capturing these qualities is an important and challenging task. Tonight, I am pleased to also launch a Code of Ethics for Mediators employed by the Department of Labour. This outlines the key ethical principles that act as a beacon for effective, contemporary mediation practice - impartiality, confidentiality, voluntary participation, competence, responsiveness, client needs, facilitated resolution and the avoidance of conflicts of interest.

This code will provide our mediators with valuable guidance on complex ethical issues. This is important because it is the agreed interpretation of ethical standards that governs both the personal conduct of our mediators and underpins the integrity of the mediation process itself.

Mediation is an evolving discipline and our systems and approaches will continue to develop. It has been a pleasure to share a little of the history of this evolution tonight. It is something that our mediators have the right to feel justifiably proud about.

And I am confident that those of you who provide the service will continue to be effective in helping employers and employees expeditiously resolve their differences. This is no small thing, because it is on the basis of this sort of cooperative endeavour that our future prospects of economic prosperity and social harmony rest.