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News News ACTU responds to Govt on Forward with Fairness

"WorkChoices is on the way out and the new industrial-relations laws can't come quickly enough", writes ACTU President Sharan Burrow inThe Australian.

22 September 2008

Collective bargaining as the centrepiece of a new IR system will turn Work Choices on its head; however there are still gaps in Labor's plan.

Unions are concerned about: the scope of bargaining and the challenge of a modern workforce; collective bargaining rights for working Australians that may fail if the independent umpire does not have the power to settle disputes, particularly for the low paid; and unfair-dismissal protection for those workers in enterprises where there are less than 15 colleagues.

A strong and independent umpire is essential for collective bargaining to work. You wouldn't send an umpire into the grand final without a whistle and expect them to make the game work fairly, so why would we do that to the industrial umpire?

Unless the new industrial umpire, Fair Work Australia, has enough power to settle disputes, employers will be able to frustrate negotiations and prevent workers achieving a result. Just ask workers in Telstra or Cochlear or other workplaces where the employers just say no.

Extra power for the umpire to settle disputes will be particularly important to help workers in low-paid industries, including many women, who have previously been disadvantaged by their limited access to multi-employer collective bargaining. The proposed bargaining stream for low-paid workers is visionary and fundamental to social equity and essential as our economy becomes more deeply divided, but if it is to be successful the independent umpire must be able to settle those final matters in dispute when parties become entrenched.

The restrictions proposed on the scope of what employees can bargain collectively with their employer are unnecessary, unfair and outmoded. Why should there be any limit on what workers and their employers can agree to? Business representatives are selling short the workplaces of the future if bargaining cannot accommodate workforce planning, skills of the future or numbers of apprentices. Employees have a legitimate interest in a wide range of issues, including how to save energy, reduce waste and support climate-change solutions in their workplace.

One of the major problems with the Coalition's Work Choices laws was the red tape for businesses in complying with complex restrictions on the content of workplace agreements.

How unfortunate if Labor were to prevent workers from negotiating innovative solutions to workplace issues and add to red tape on business by artificially limiting what managers and employees can agree to in employment arrangements.

Collective bargaining could also be adversely affected by Labor's proposals on so-called unprotected industrial action. There will be times - such as when factory closures or redundancies are announced - when workers will want to stop work to consider the implications. Deducting four hours' pay is unreasonably harsh and could lead to greater work disruptions as there will be no incentive for workers to return to work for half a day.

We are also concerned that the Labor Government is out of step with community opinion on the issue of unfair dismissal. A recent national Galaxy poll indicated that about two in three respondents believe workers in small businesses should have the same protection from unfair dismissal as other workers. While Australians will breathe a sigh of relief to get back some security in workplaces with more than 15 employees, workers in smaller businesses must have confidence that the umpire is there for them, too.

Sharan Burrow is president of the ACTU.

 
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