Jeff Lawrence: Employers should be honest about what they really want

The hysterical response from several business lobby groups to the modernising of awards raises questions about whether employers are being honest about what they really want.

Ever since the introduction of enterprise bargaining under the Keating Government, employers have sought a single industrial relations system and have claimed that the operation of multiple awards across multiple states was costly and inefficient for large businesses.

The Howard Government – through the Work Choices IR laws – provided an unfair and ultimately unsound basis for that national system.

Responding to employer demands, the Howard Government also committed to rationalising and updating the award system (the ‘award rationalisation’ process) — but never completed the job, deciding that it was too hard.

The Rudd Labor Government, as a part of its election commitments, undertook to do what the Coalition couldn’t or wouldn’t – retain and modernise the award system.

This has involved reducing over 2,600 awards to about 130. It includes developing a single award standard within each industry (such as manufacturing or retail) or major occupation (such as nursing) that removes state-based differences in awards in national industries. In most cases this will result in employers only having to refer to one award for their business and not the multitude they have needed to refer to in the past.

Now we are well on the way to achieving the rationalisation of awards within a single national industrial relations system, employers are complaining that the new awards might impose some additional costs upon them.

It is notable that they have never complained of the savings many will get through the new modern awards or any of the adverse effects of the new awards on their employees.

Employers have also complained that they need at least five years to phase in the new awards. The Industrial Relations Commission this week gave employers a five year period to phase in any increases in wages starting from 1 July 2010.

But employers still aren’t happy.

Which begs the question – what do they really want?

What is becoming clear is that many employers actually don’t want a modern award system – they want no awards at all.

They hanker after the WorkChoices era where there was no real safety net of wages and conditions for workers and where employers could push workers onto AWA individual contracts that removed penalty payments, public holiday pay and other basic award conditions.

The Australian public rejected this. They voted against WorkChoices and in favour of basic protections for workers.

It is clear there is strong public support for the robust safety net that awards provide. Australians know that without awards, many young, low paid and vulnerable workers will be ripped off by unscrupulous employers.

The current process of award modernisation has not met all the objectives that unions would have liked. We do remain concerned that workers in some industries risk losing take home pay and conditions.

We acknowledge that the Government has established a process for hearing claims of disadvantage and can make ‘take home pay orders’ if necessary.

Unions will pursue this avenue and will continue to work hard to represent workers and prevent them from being disadvantaged.

However the fundamental point is that award modernisation will breathe new life into Australia’s unique industrial relations system.

It ensures that awards will provide a minimum safety net of wages and conditions that is simpler and more effective for both employers and employees and that they continue to play a unique role in delivering fairness in our economy and society more broadly.

Awards will protect important matters like minimum wages and penalties for working unsociable hours, overtime for working past normal working hours and so on. They also enable bargaining at the enterprise level for employers, workers and unions to develop conditions above this safety net that meet the specific needs of the business.

It is time for the employer lobby groups to move on and accept the new ground rules of the Federal Government’s ‘Fair Work’ industrial relations system. Either that or be honest about their real intentions — to continue to undermine basic rights and protections for workers and bring back WorkChoices.

Article originally appeared in The Australian (08.09.09)