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News News Union uproar over withheld agreements
THE Howard Government's workplace monitor is refusing to publish details of thousands of collective workplace agreements lodged since the introduction of the fairness test, which was supposed to soften the controversial industrial relations laws.

The Workplace Authority blames delays on changes in the agency's information technology system and says it is still scrutinising a backlog of agreements. But unions believe the authority is refusing to release details of non-union agreements because they will reveal that, despite the fairness test, workers are trading off benefits such as penalty rates, paid overtime and holiday loadings in exchange for modest compensation.

The union allegation comes as Workplace Authority letters show it had given pre-approval to a non-union agreement at a South Australian abattoir that leaves meat workers up to $90 a week worse off.

In a letter addressed as "Dear Brian", to Brian Devey, of Lobethal Abattoirs in Murray Bridge, the authority's director, Barbara Bennett, writes: "I am satisfied that the proposed agreement provides fair compensation for the removal or modification of the protected conditions according to the guidelines for the fairness test ..."

In a letter to abattoir staff, the chief executive, Darren Thomas, also writes that the company had presented its proposed employee collective agreement to the Workplace Authority and had been "advised the agreement passes the fairness test".

But Graham Smith, the South Australian secretary of the meat workers' union, said the approved agreement reclassified qualified slaughtermen on higher wages as unskilled labourers.

"It's a con," Mr Smith told the Herald. "The effect on the wages of employees is enormous."

Under the proposed agreement carrying Ms Bennett's preliminary approval, workers will receive $625, and a $10 "incentive payment" for a 40-hour week. But Mr Smith said they should be paid between $675 and $723 a week. "Skilled slaughtermen are getting the same amount as labourers who sweep up the offal on the floors."

Last night, the authority backtracked on Ms Bennett's letter of approval, sent on September 19, saying she had only given the abattoir "preliminary advice". In a statement, Ms Bennett said Lobethal would need to take its offer to the workers then send it back to the authority for checking.

Tim Ferrari, the assistant secretary of the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union, said non-union collective agreements lodged in the hospitality industry had allowed workers to trade off wages for employee discounts on coffee beans and tea leaves or a free cup of coffee or tea. "But only at the beginning of the shift and only provided it does not interfere with the carrying out your duties," Mr Ferrari said. "We believe that the Workplace Authority is giving the tick to lots of similar agreements."

A spokeswoman for the Workplace Authority said: "The agreements will go up on the website in the next few weeks, as we adapt or modify our new IT systems."

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