election2010 box5
News News Are we the lucky country for workers?
How do Australians compare to other countries when it comes to work? In the first of a series, Michael Bachelard finds it's a mixed picture.

THE Government describes WorkChoices as a pillar of its economic success, the driver of low inflation and unemployment. The Opposition dismisses it as "extreme". Either way, the regime the Government created last year is unique in the world.

Compared to the laws in Europe, protections for employees under WorkChoices are minimal, leading to Labor's claim that Australia is being pushed closer to an American-style free market system with large numbers of "working poor". But the law has retained stronger protection than America's in some areas, particularly a minimum wage that is generous by world standards.

At the same time, WorkChoices is hardly deregulation: it is prescriptiv e. Harvard economist Richard Freeman, looking at its 2000 pages of rules, described it recently as "amazing . . . micromanagement" of business activity that would not be tolerated in the Land of the Free.

Interacting with all this law is the remnant of the award system, which itself was unique in the world and gave Australian workers the best conditions of any nation. According to Flinders University academic Andrew Stewart, those covered by awards still enjoy the world's most regulated protections in terms of hours and pay scales - but WorkChoices is in the process of diminishing the system, removing people from it and overriding awards with individual agreements.


Under WorkChoices, enacted 18 months ago, five conditions are "protected" in the law: a 38-hour week that can be averaged over 12 months, plus "reasonable additional hours"; four weeks annual leave; 12 months unpaid parental leave; sick and carers' leave of 10 days per year; and the minimum wage, as set by the Australian Fair Pay Commission.

Australia's minimum pay rate is among the highest in the world. Above that, the award system still offers many conditions including leave, hours, pay, shift conditions, penalties and overtime for about 1.1 million workers directly, with many more enterprise agreements underpinned by an award.

In the UK and Europe, legislation, not an award system, is the main source of protection for workers, and the law contains many more basic standards. But Europe also has higher unemployment, about 7 per cent, compared to Australia's 4.3 per cent.

In the US, the only minimum conditions are the very low federal minimum wage, federal health and safety laws, discrimination laws and maximum working hours, which provide so me workers with time-and-a-half for working more than 40 hours. States are free to legislate above that, but few do.

There is no such thing in the US safety net as sick leave, parental leave or long-service leave. Annual leave is not guaranteed, but there is a de facto standard of two weeks per year.


Australian law's provision for hours of work and "reasonable additional hours" means no real regulation of hours and Australians, contrary to our laid-back image, work some of the longest hours in the world.

"We no longer have in Australia a concept of normal working time, of which hours are normal hours," says Dr Jill Murray from the law school at La Trobe University. "We've got the most deregulated regime for hours in the world."

European countries have much stronger protections limiting working time, and average time worked is falling. French workers have a mandatory maxim um 35-hour week, and even in the United States, workers except for managers, are guaranteed overtime after 40 hours work.


Australia offers all workers 12 months unpaid parental leave for each parent, but is one of five countries among 168 - the others are the United States, Swaziland, Lesotho, and Mozambique - not to offer paid parental leave.

Neither major party proposes to introduce paid leave. The Opposition will study its impact and the Government says its baby bonus does the same job. Leave in other countries varies wildly but averages about 12 to 14 weeks at pay rates up to 100 per cent.


Australia's bargaining system is restrictive compared with most other countries. In European countries, collective bargaining is central; in Italy, it's a right under the constitution.

Some countries, including Ireland, Finland and Belgium set wages at a national level; others such as Denmark, Germany and Italy bargain across industry sectors (such as manufacturing), and in others, bargaining is mainly at the company level.

Industrial action taken in pursuit of a collective agreement is protected from legal sanctions.

In New Zealand, collective negotiation is done under the over-riding requirement of "good faith" bargaining - a concept central to Labor's industrial relations policy.

In the US, collective bargaining is a tiny portion of the industrial relations system, with most workers being employed individually on common law contracts. But, where a union conducts a ballot that proves it has majority support in a workplace, the company is obliged to negotiate. Workers who benefit from such an agreement without being in the union must pay a bargaining fee.

Under WorkChoices, Australia only allows collective bargaining at the workplace level. Trying to negotiate a collective agreement at more than one workplace is called "pattern bargaining," and will be illegal under both Kevin Rudd and John Howard.

WorkChoices is accelerating the individualisation of workplace bargaining, with 30,000 Australian Workplace Agreements being signed per month, and almost 10 per cent of the population now on such individual arrangements. These contracts, uniquely, override collective agreements.

But in Australia, unlike the US, there is no way for employees to compel a business to negotiate collectively with them. Labor's policy offers the option for the first time.


In Europe, freedom of association - the right to belong to a union - is inextricably linked to the ability to pursue industrial goals. In the US, according to Human Rights Watch, freedom of association exists in name, bu t not in practice.

Under WorkChoices, workers are free to belong, or not belong, to a trade union, but the law limits how trade union membership can be exercised. Employers and employees are legally prevented from bargaining about certain issues that aid union activism, and unions are circumscribed in what industrial action they can take. The right of entry provisions for union officials to a workplace are strict.


In Australia, people working for companies with more than 100 employees are able to claim redress for being dismissed unfairly - and they can be dismissed if the employer cites operational reasons. For companies with fewer than 100 employees, there are no unfair dismissal provisions. Labor has vowed to reinstate an unfair dismissal regime.

The UK has a comprehensive unfair dismissal regime, and special tribunals to enforce it, as do many European countries. In the US, only one state, Montana, has instituted unfair dismissal laws.

  • MUACampaign
  • SOS Action Plan

  • EmpowerWA

  • WAjobsfromwaresources

  • May_Day_Photos
  • Don't Risk 2nd Rate Safety

  • shopritelg_2010

ME Bank Unity Training
© Copyright Unions WA Designed by Foote Francis