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Kiwi athletes secure rights in landmark case against High Performance Sport NZ


New Zealand’s top rowers and cyclists have achieved a significant win over High Performance Sport NZ (HPSNZ) in an employment dispute, potentially reshaping the landscape of elite athletes’ rights and wellbeing.

The Employment Relations Authority recently delivered its verdict in a protracted legal battle, siding with The Athletes’ Cooperative led by Olympic rowing champion Mahe Drysdale.

In a comprehensive 16-page decision, authority member Rowan Anderson mandated that the government agency must engage in genuine collective bargaining with the cooperative, representing approximately 60 elite cyclists and rowers.

Initially resistant to negotiations for a collective agreement citing the absence of a formal employment relationship with athletes, HPSNZ leadership faced a pivotal setback with the authority’s ruling.

While HPSNZ expressed surprise and concern at the outcome, stating intentions to potentially appeal the decision, Drysdale emphasised the significance of the ruling in advancing protections for athletes.

“The main thing is what we have been fighting for over the last 18 months has been accepted as the right way, so I guess there is a sense of vindication there that the ERA have ruled that [HPSNZ] should have been engaging with us in the process,” 2012 and 2016 gold medallist Drysdale said.

“This has gone our way, but ultimately it is the start of the process. Now we have to get around the table and the hard work begins.”

Following a period of productive but inconclusive talks, the ERA’s decision now compels HPSNZ to adhere to a structured framework aimed at reaching a collective agreement.

“The issue we had was there was nothing compelling HPSNZ to change and agree to a framework and set of protections,” Drysdale continued.

“We had productive chats, but that’s all it is. It was kind of like ‘tell us your issues, we’ll deal with it’.

“That’s exactly what we don’t want. Our athletes have a lot of knowledge, and a lot of experience and IP, and we want to be part of coming up with the solution.”

Central to the cooperative’s objectives is advocating for equitable remuneration commensurate with athletes’ responsibilities, prioritising athlete wellbeing and fostering a culture of mutual respect and trust.

The roots of this highly consequential dispute trace back to mid-2022, when athletes from New Zealand’s premier Olympic sports formed a union, signalling a desire for collective bargaining. This initiative gained momentum following a critical review of elite sporting environments prompted by the tragic death of Olympic cyclist Olivia Podmore.

The review underscored the power disparity between athletes and sports authorities, recommending reforms to address onerous demands placed on athletes. This catalysed the formation of The Athletes’ Cooperative, galvanised by Drysdale and prominent cyclists and rowers.

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