Jeff Lawrence opinion piece: The Liberals just don't get it

Copy of the Fair Work Act sitting on table
Almost two years to the day since the Fair Work Act began operation, Tony Abbott finally declared his intention to attack our new system of workplace relations.

Events this week have confirmed, once again, that the Liberal Party just doesn't get workers' rights.

It remains fixated with removing unfair dismissal protection, undermining collective bargaining and handing employers power to dictate pay and conditions.

It isn't just the presence of former Howard government IR headkicker Peter Reith, or the continuing role on the front bench of the chief Work Choices salesman, Joe Hockey. An entire new generation of Liberal MPs sees nothing wrong with taking away basic workplace rights.

The Fair Work Act represents an important step forward from Work Choices, which placed millions of workers in vulnerable employment, undermined protections and led to real cuts to the value of minimum wages. Australia's economy has prospered since the Fair Work Act came into effect.

Jobs, wages, profits and productivity are up, without any sign of a "wages breakout". Industrial disputes have fallen. But economic statistics tell only part of the story.

From tomorrow, award minimum wages will be restored to their pre-Work Choices levels after they fell under the Fair Pay Commission. Six million people now have unfair dismissal protection, which they didn't have under Work Choices.

A record 43.4 per cent of the workforce is covered by collective agreements, earning on average 77 per cent more than the award.

Workers have greater protections to representation and to having a say in their workplace. And all this is underpinned by a genuine independent umpire.

But aspects of our industrial relations system can be improved.

Building and construction workers have fewer workplace rights than all other workers. The collective bargaining system should be fairer, more efficient and accessible.

It is also unacceptable that workers in small business wait 12 months to qualify for unfair dismissal protection. And all workers, whether permanent or non-permanent, should have the right to secure employment protected.

None of this requires a demolition of the Fair Work Act, as the Liberals and business groups claim. Does the business lobby ever speak to real employers, because the last thing they want is another disruptive round of workplace changes.

Gains from the Fair Work Act are always at risk. Reith has done us a favour when he describes the Howard government's workplace policies as "one of the great successes" and "part of our DNA". An illustration of its fragility comes from the actions of newly elected state Liberal governments in NSW and Victoria.

Within weeks of winning this year's election, NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell introduced sweeping changes to public sector workplace agreements, placing Australia in breach of its international obligations.

In Victoria, Premier Ted Baillieu announced an attack on freedom of association by linking funding for government projects to tougher industrial relations principles.

On the second anniversary of the Fair Work Act, unions are looking to entrench a system that allows industry and labour to work together without leaving working people behind.

Jeff Lawrence, secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, will speak at today's Growth Challenge conference.


Article original appeared in The Australian 30.06.11