Guidance for workers

Your rights

Everyone has the right to work, the right to equal pay for equal work and the right to a decent income and working conditions. - Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 23


Human rights are what people need to live with dignity and enjoy freedom. The quality of life of New Zealanders is dependent on decent work. The right to work is a fundamental human right, strongly established in international law, but for many people, the challenge is how to access this right.

Everyone has the right to

  • The right to participate in culture
  • The right to work
  • The right to an adequate standard of living
  • The right to education

Everyone is equally entitled to human rights without discrimination. Discrimination happens when someone is treated unfairly or less favourably than another person in the same or similar circumstances. Discrimination can be direct or indirect, and generally takes the form of exclusion or rejection from something.

People with may experience unfair treatment because of factors such as how they look, where they were born, or what age or gender they are.

Discrimination can also be subtle, creating systemic barriers that lock people out of social and economic opportunities.

What laws protect you against discrimination

The Human Rights Act makes discrimination unlawful when it occurs in:

  • government or state sector activities
  • public education and health services
  • employment
  • business partnerships
  • industrial and professional associations
  • qualifying bodies and vocational training bodies
  • access to public places, vehicle and facilities
  • access to goods and services
  • access to land, housing and accommodation
  • and access to education.

The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act sets out a range of civil and political rights, including among other things, the right to freedom of expression, the right to religious belief, the right to freedom of movement, and the right to be free from discrimination.

Every year we field thousands of complaints and queries from people across the country. Nine out of ten complaints are resolved by our team of mediators.

If you experience or indirect discrimination you can complain  to the Human Rights Commission. Find our more information about using your rights here.

To find out more about what the Human Rights Act protects you from you can view this part of our Enquiries, Complaints, and Support section.

The right to work

The Bill of Rights Act and Human Rights Act make law things that many of us probably take for granted:Such as the right to work, and the right to not be discriminated against because of our age, race or gender.

Everyone has the right to work. The right to work is a fundamental human right which is set out in international law. Work plays a central role in people’s quality of life. It provides people with a livelihood to support themselves and their families. Work is also a source of personal dignity, family stability, community well-being and economic growth.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that employment must be “freely chosen”, under “just and favourable conditions” and equally giving the right to “just and favourable remuneration”, “protection against unemployment” and “to form and to join trade unions”.

The UDHR also states that everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay. The following human rights elements are used to analyse the employment cycle of the right to work.

International legislation

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Articles 6–8) defines the core elements of the right to work. These are:

  1. the opportunity to work;
  2. free choice of employment;
  3. just and favourable conditions of work;
  4. non-discrimination and the right to form and join trade unions.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work commits states to promoting these rights regardless of whether they have ratified the relevant conventions. These principles and rights are:

  1. the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour;
  2. the abolishment of child labour;
  3. the elimination of discrimination in employment and occupation;
  4. and ensuring the freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.

Good Employer Legislation

Equal employment opportunities (EEO) are referred to in a range of employment related legislation that applies to the public and private sectors in New Zealand.    

Most of the indirect references indicate what a ‘good employer’ may do to, for example, keep employees safe and provide them with information. Other indirect references are about compliance with minimum employment standards, such as wages or holidays. The Commission plays an integral role in monitoring Crown Entities 'Good Employer' performance. Read more here.

Employment Relations Act 2000 (ERA)

This aims to build productive employment relationships founded on the principle of ‘good faith’, address the inequality of power in employment relationships, support collective bargaining, ensure individual choice in employment, and promote mediation while reducing the need for judicial intervention. The ERA also contains protections against unjustifiable dismissal or disadvantage.

Public sector work rights

Under the Crown Entities Act 2004, Crown entities are required to be ‘good employers’. ‘In a general sense, the Employment Relations Act's good faith requirements complement and reinforce these ‘good employer’ obligations. The Act's good faith requirements are also very relevant to the development of human resource strategic plans in general and bargaining strategies in particular.’

Crown entities as a group have never had legislated ‘good employer’ and equal employment opportunities requirements specific to them. The following sections of the Crown Entities Act 2004, refer to the ‘good employer’.

Crown entities have to provide employees with the following:

  • Good and safe working conditions; and
  • An equal employment opportunities programme; and
  • The impartial selection of suitably qualified persons for appointment; and
  • Recognition of-
    • the aims and aspirations of Māori; and
    • the employment requirements of Māori; and
    • the need for greater involvement of Māori as employees of the entity, and
  • Opportunities for the enhancement of the abilities of individual employees; and
  • Recognition of the aims and aspirations and employment requirements, and the cultural differences, of ethnic or minority groups; and
  • Recognition of the employment requirements of women; and
  • Recognition of the employment requirements of persons with disabilities.

The Commission plays an integral role in monitoring Crown Entities 'Good Employer' performance. Read more here.

Disabled peoples right to work

The New Zealand Government ratified the CRPD in 2008. This is the most modern application of the right to work, and outlines a number of key areas governing employment for disabled people. The CRPD recognises the right of disabled people to work on an equal basis with others.

It affirms that state parties have the responsibility to safeguard and promote the realisation of the right to work by taking appropriate steps, for example through legislation.

The CRPD states that disabled people should be employed in the public sector; that the private sector should actively promote the employment of disabled people through affirmative action programmes, incentives and other measures; and that reasonable accommodation should be provided to disabled people in the workplace.

Article 27 of the CRPD states that disabled people have “the right to the opportunity to gain a living by work freely chosen or accepted in a labour market and work environment that is open, inclusive and accessible to people with disabilities”. These and other employment considerations are explained further in the chapter on the rights of disabled people.

If you'd like to know more about the rights of people with disabilities, visit this section here.

Women and the right to work

CEDAW states that women have the right to equal pay for work of equal value, the same employment opportunities as men, and protection from dismissal because of pregnancy. In 2007, the CEDAW Committee recommended that New Zealand enact comprehensive laws guaranteeing women’s substantive equality at work with men in both the public and private sectors.

The Committee further recommended that New Zealand include adequate sanctions for any acts of discrimination against women, and ensure that effective remedies are available to women whose rights have been violated. Concerns about private sector practices relating to gender equality were also raised by the committee.

Currently, there is no compulsion such as the “good employer” obligation for the public sector imposed on the private sector.

The right to breastfeed at work

The human right to food and nutrition, including breastmilk, is well established in international human rights principles and law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights assert the rights to adequate standards of living, to food, life, survival, and development.

The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) protects women from discrimination because of the responsibilities of motherhood. Most explicitly, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) sets out the rights of children to proper nutrition and health care, while highlighting the importance of their parents’ education on “basic knowledge of child health and nutrition [and] the advantages of breastfeeding”.

Read about our work on the right to breastfeed here.

Young people and the right to work

UNCROC ensures that children have the right to a minimum working age, regulation of hours of employment, and protection from workplace exploitation. New Zealand has ratified UNCROC but with reservations, one of which is reserving the right not to legislate further or take additional measures in relation to child employment.

Māori and the right to work

The Treaty provides for Māori to have equal opportunities and outcomes at work as well as for Māori participation and leadership in decisions that impact upon Māori employment.

Māori peoples rights to work is also provided for by UNDRIP. Article 17 specifically states that governments shall protect indigenous children from economic exploitation and from dangerous or harmful work; and that indigenous People have the right not to be discriminated against in matters connected with employment. The declaration also points out that indigenous peoples have rights under international labour law and under national laws.

If you'd like to know more about the rights of indigenous peoples, visit this section here.

The rights of carers

The Employment Relations (Flexible Working Arrangements) Amendment Act 2007 came into force in July 2008. Its purpose was to give eligible employees with caring responsibilities the right to request a variation to their hours of work, days of work or place of work. You can read more about the Commission's work in this area here.

Domestic workers rights

While domestic workers in New Zealand are covered by basic employment provisions, they have traditionally had limited coverage in employment and discrimination law, because they work in private homes and not in offices, factories or other workplaces.

If you have further questions about the laws that protect your rights you can either view our Enquiries, Complaints, and Support section or our Frequently Asked Questions section.

Visit our Using your rights section to find out what your options are if you think you have faced racial discrimination.

You can visit this section for more info about EEO.