Sabbath wrangle payout $40,000

A member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church has been awarded $40,000 in compensation for his employer's religious discrimination.

The settlement, believed to be the highest in an employment discrimination case, centred on whether Bay of Plenty man Dick Valentine could be forced to work Saturdays, a day of rest for his religion.

After years of organising cover for his Saturday shift at the Tasman mill in Kawerau and threats of dismissal, Mr Valentine complained to the Human Rights Commission in 1999 that the mill did not respect his wishes to observe his sabbath.

Four years after bringing the case, the 56-year-old steam plant operator no longer has to work Saturdays, has been granted a one-off award of six weeks' leave and will continue in his present position. All in addition to the $40,000 payout.

During the case, Mr Valentine did not work Saturdays.

The issue arose in 1979 when Mr Valentine, who has worked at the mill for 34 years, asked that his roster be changed to accommodate his religious principles.

The mill's management said Mr Valentine would have to find his own replacement for the days when he was scheduled to work.

At first this was not a problem because the company paid overtime to employees who worked Saturdays.

But an employment contract introduced in 1993 set salaries and overtime payments ceased.

Mr Valentine was twice issued warnings after he failed to appear for Saturday shifts.

The company, Tasman Pulp and Paper, and its successors Norske Skog Tasman and Carter Holt Harvey Tasman, said they had taken appropriate steps to accommodate Mr Valentine's religious beliefs.

Mr Valentine told the Herald from his Manawahe home, near Whakatane, that he was happy a precedent had been set about employees' religious rights but that his payout was a "joke".

"It should have been more than $40,000 because to a multimillion-dollar company like Carter Holt Harvey, this is a slap on the hand with a wet bus ticket ... it's just a token gesture."

He said, however, it was a relief not to be fighting the company any more and to not have to pay people to cover his Saturday shifts.

Mr Valentine said the battle had caused him health problems and had put him in constant "fighting mode".

Mr Valentine's lawyer, Colin Perrior, said the commission's finding was the first of its kind in New Zealand. "It does not just affect the Adventist Church or other religious faiths in New Zealand. It affects citizens of any country in the South Pacific that has a Human Rights Act."

In a statement, Norske Skog Tasman and Carter Holt Harvey Tasman acknowledged "the distress experienced by Mr Valentine through the failure to accommodate his religious beliefs during his employment at the mill".