First Union general secretary Robert Reid says First Union was negotiating an agreement for workers at the distribution centre last year.
He says both parties agreed to tea and meal breaks in June but then the Employment Relations Amendment Bill was passed, which removed the statutory right to meal and tea breaks.
Under the new law, employers have to provide ‘‘reasonable compensatory measures where an employee could not reasonably be provided with breaks.”
Compensatory measures could include giving time off work.
The bill has also weakened the right to collective bargaining.
Reid says that Cotton On wants to take advantage of a law that strips workers of their rights, which has come into effect this month.
“After the government’s law changes, removing tea and meal breaks is legal, but that does not make it ethical or sensible,” he says.
“How long before other major chains try and follow suit?”
He says that breaks for workers are necessary to keep people safe in their jobs.
“The rationale for removing tea and meal breaks was that some workers do not need them. Cotton On distribution workers not only want their breaks, they need them.”
People have taken to commenting on Cotton On's social media to voice their thoughts, including this photo posted on Saturday.
Labour Party relations spokesperson Ian Lees-Galloway says the law change was meant to be about supporting small New Zealand businesses, yet the first company to take advantage of it is an Australian corporation.
“John Key said that industries such as hospitality and air traffic control were the ones that needed the law change,” Lees-Galloway says.
“Yet people working in retail with predicable customer demand are the first to be hit.”
Reid says that Cotton On workers and the union will resist the proposals by the chain and that a strike seems likely.
Cotton On has responded to First Union’s comments in a statement.
It says the company is committed to working with First Union until an agreement is made.
“In response to recent comments made by First Union NZ, the Cotton On Group would like to make it clear that no changes have been made to our workers' rights in any of our distribution centres. Negotiations are currently in place between the Cotton On Group and First Union with no agreement having yet been made,” the statement says.
"The Cotton On Group is committed to having highly engaged staff and we have an effective two-way communication process in place, by way of implementation of our consultative committees which exist in each of our DCs globally, allowing each and every one of our people to have a voice."
“To ensure we can maintain the integrity of the negotiation process we are committed to continue our conversations with First Union until an agreement is made. Our people and their working conditions have and always will be our top priority.”