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Top name Olympians launch landmark employment case against High Performance Sport NZ

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Olympic rowing great Mahe Drysdale is co-chair of a newly formed athlete union that has launched an employment case against High Performance Sport NZ.

Iain McGregor/Stuff

Olympic rowing great Mahe Drysdale is co-chair of a newly formed athlete union that has launched an employment case against High Performance Sport NZ.

Athletes from two of the country’s most successful Olympic sports have launched landmark employment proceedings against High Performance Sport NZ.

Stuff has learned a newly formed athlete union, led by rowing great Mahe Drysdale​ and Tokyo Olympian Kirstie Klingenberg​ (nee James), is taking the government sport agency to the Employment Relations Authority, in a case that could have profound implications for the administration of sport in New Zealand.

The group, known as The Athletes’ Cooperative, was set up in June this year in opposition to High Performance Sport NZ’s attempts to establish an athlete voice mechanism, and is understood to represent around 60 elite cyclists and rowers.

The complex and highly political employment wrangle is at its heart an attempt by the Cooperative, and its backers, to secure better rights and protections for New Zealand’s elite athletes, including meeting minimum wage requirements.

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The dispute wound up with the Employment Relations Authority following failed attempts by the Cooperative to enter into collective bargaining with High Performance Sport NZ.

Stuff understands that the government agency’s position is that athletes are not their employees, and therefore it cannot enter into employment negotiations.

The union is now seeking a determination from the Authority that contracted athletes are effectively employees of High Performance Sport NZ, setting up a fascinating test case that will likely be closely watched not only by other athlete representative groups in New Zealand, but overseas bodies.

Sport NZ chief executive Raelene Castle confirmed the case was before the Employment Relations Authority, but declined to discuss the details.

“Athlete voice and wellbeing continues to be a priority for High Performance Sport New Zealand. However, given the confidential nature of this issue, we won’t comment further to respect the integrity of the process,” Castle said in a statement.

Drysdale said he was also unable to comment on the proceedings, citing confidentiality. But he was able to shed some light on the kaupapa of The Athletes Cooperative.

Former international cyclist Kirstie Klingenberg is co-chair of The Athletes' Cooperative alongside Mahe Drysdale.

Michael Bradley/Getty Images

Former international cyclist Kirstie Klingenberg is co-chair of The Athletes’ Cooperative alongside Mahe Drysdale.

As first revealed by Stuff in May, athletes from Rowing NZ and Cycling NZ were in talks to form their own union due to concerns that a new athlete representative body proposed by High Performance Sport NZ was “compromised”.

Documents submitted to the Incorporated Societies Register reveal the group is backed by a roster of high profile athletes, including Olympic gold medalists Emma Twigg, Tom Mackintosh and Michael Brake, and cycling stars Sam Bewley and Sam Dakin.

Drysdale said the purpose of the Cooperative was to empower athletes to “engage in a more meaningful way to make sport better in New Zealand”.

“We didn’t feel that what was being done by High Performance Sport NZ was the right way. I don’t think High Performance Sport can create their own athlete body and then actually be independent, so we decided to form our own mechanism.”

The other athlete voice group, the Athlete Leaders Network, led by Olympian Sarah Cowley-Ross, is funded by High Performance Sport NZ but “organisationally separate” from the agency.

Drysdale, who retired from rowing last year, has been a long-time agitator for change in New Zealand’s high performance system. In 2016 the double Olympic champion was among a handful of top-name athletes to speak out about a system that treats athletes as “second class citizens”.

Since then, successive reviews into troubled sporting environments have further highlighted the link between elite athlete rights and welfare.

STUFF

The findings of a major review into cycling and its high-performance environment were made public, presented by Mike Heron, QC, and senior academic Sarah Leberman.

An independent inquiry into Cycling NZ and High Performance Sport NZ following the death of elite cyclist Olivia Podmore dedicated significant time to examining the power imbalance between the national body – described in the report as a “government funded monopoly” – and athletes.

The review panel raised concerns that the existing athlete contracts were “vulnerable to challenge” and were “restrictive in a way that is not conducive to either well-being or performance”. The panel recommended that High Performance Sport NZ consult with athletes on the contractor vs employee model “in recognition of the fact that they are under CNZ’s effective control and train/compete at CNZ’s direction”.

“We note that the model may be more expensive, but it would provide greater protections for athletes and incentivise better decision-making around who is brought into the [high performance programme] and when and where that occurs. An employment model is not impossible,” the report read.

A move to an employment model would also lead to a fundamental shift in how the country’s top athletes are remunerated. Currently, High Performance Sport NZ invests $11.82 million per year in targeted athlete funding, with base training grants starting at $25,000, while Olympic and Paralympic medalists can receive up to an additional $40,000 per year. The current minimum wage is approximately $44,000 per year.

The two parties will present their case to the Employment Relations Authority at an investigation meeting in February.

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