Australia: Labor government’s Industrial Relations Laws

Previous right wing administration’s anti-union ‘Work Choices’ repackaged

In October 2008, Australian Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd declared the country was “going through the worst financial crisis in our lifetime” and warned that “there will be tough times ahead”.

Those tough times have already started. Already this year in Western Australia, alone, 5300 jobs have been lost in the mining industry. Each week we hear of more and more redundancies. Virgin blue has sacked over 400 workers, Norilsk Nickel sacked 330 workers and national unemployment is expected to reach over 7% this year.

The government promised to scrap the previous John Howard government’s ‘Work Choices’ when they won the last federal election, but Rudd’s new Industrial Relations legislation, the Fair Work Bill, does not bring an end to anti-trade union laws in Australia. While a few minor changes may be made in the coming weeks, Howard’s Work Choices legislation will remain largely in tact.

A review of all the existing industry ‘Awards’ is currently taking place. Rudd claims the aim is to ‘modernise’ the system by simplifying and reducing the number of Awards. It is proposed that there will be 10 minimum National Employment Standards applying instead of the 5 under Work Choices.

Entitlements such as maximum weekly hours of work, overtime pay, penalty rates, public holidays, redundancy, annual leave and rest breaks will be protected. Obviously workers will be pleased with this extension, but this is still less than what we had prior to Work Choices.

Unfortunately there is no guarantee that workers across all states will not be worse off. In fact, some workers in the first round of reviews will find they are on lower minimum wages. So, while Rudd calls this process modernisation, it will mean lower wages for some workers.

The government has banned the introduction of new wage cutting AWAs (individual contracts) from March 2009. However the legislation will allow workers to remain on existing AWAs. Workers on expired AWAs will be able to access collective bargaining, and new individual agreements will have to comply with the new National Employment Standards. While this is a slight improvement, individual contracts will remain, albeit in a different form.

Under the proposals, if a majority of workers in a workplace insist on bargaining for a union collective agreement, the union will have a right to represent those workers. A new body, called Fair Work Australia, will act as a sort of umpire and will be able to conciliate, mediate and make recommendations, but, as things stand, it will not be able to force an agreement on any party.

If you work for an employer with less than 100 workers, your protection against unfair dismissal only starts after 12 months. The exemption from unfair dismissal when sackings occur for “operational reasons” has been removed but it will still be legal for employers to sack workers in small businesses unfairly.

Discriminatory laws against construction workers remain

The discriminatory laws for workers in the construction industry will also remain and will not be reviewed until 2010. The Australian Building Construction Commission (ABCC) still has draconian powers and has actually stepped up its work under the Rudd Government.

It is clear that these laws are designed to ensure that Australian workers bear the brunt of the economic crisis while the employers are free to continue making profits. Gerald Henderson, Executive Director of the Sydney Institute, wrote in a recent article that even the minor changes to unfair dismissals should be put on hold until the crises is over. This is typical of the boss’s attitude to job security in Australia.

While some trade union leaders are claiming the proposals “represent one of the most momentous overhauls of industrial relations in this country for 100 years” most workers will be hard pressed to see how things have fundamentally changed.

The right to strike and take industrial action is still severely limited. The right for bosses to sack workers, resist pay rises and close factories is maintained. In essence, the Rudd government has only improved the rights of workers marginally and Work Choices has, in effect, been repackaged as the Fair Work Bill.

Job security, the right to strike and the right to be fully represented by a trade union will still need to be fought for by the workers’ movement. The election of a Labor government has not changed this, in any way shape or form.

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March 2009