Jeff Lawrence: Turning the tide on workers’ rights

There can no longer be any doubt. The Government’s new industrial relations proposals are definitely not ‘WorkChoices Lite’. As more details emerge, it is becoming crystal clear they will give Australian workers a comprehensive suite of new legal rights and protections as part of an historic overhaul of our nation’s workplace laws.

Central to the proposals are strong rights for workers to collectively bargain and be represented by their union.

Labor’s new IR system will be based on collective bargaining, driving better wages and conditions and at the same time delivering higher productivity in our workplaces.

Importantly, the Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard has confirmed the industrial umpire will back up these rights with the power to step in and settle disputes where, after all efforts have been made, it is clear that an independent umpire is required.

This will assist low paid employees such as cleaners, childcare workers, community sector, hospitality workers and other workers in low paid industries bargain with their employers for higher wages and improved conditions. And the ability of Fair Work Australia to arbitrate when parties persistently refuse to bargain in good faith will provide a circuit-breaker for intractable disputes such as those at Telstra and Cochlear.

The courts will also be given a new role in overseeing the application of awards and the
National Employment Standards.

This will provide a strong deterrent against the infringement of workers’ rights and entitlements, with employers facing court-imposed injunctions, penalties and a wide
range of orders.

These are major steps forward for Australian workers.

They are a far cry from the aggressively unfair and anti-union WorkChoices.

But there are many other areas where Labor’s industrial relations plans are streets
ahead of the alternative.

The further use of Australian Workplace Agreements has already been banned. While those still in operation will be allowed to run their course, they will have to comply with the national standards.

Unions want the Government to go further and guarantee that those remaining AWAs that cut overtime or penalty rates are removed from our workplaces.

Unfair dismissal rights will be returned for all Australian workers. This is an essential change which will bring fairness back into our workplaces and especially help protect young and other vulnerable workers.

After more than a million award workers saw their real wages decline under the Howard Government’s so-called Fair Pay Commission, Labor’s proposals will also restore fairness and transparency to the setting of minimum wages.

At the same time, a new safety net of modern awards and national standards is under construction. Unions expect to see no workers are left worse off and entitlements such as overtime pay, penalty rates, public holidays, redundancy, annual leave and rest breaks once again safeguarded and unable to be stripped away as they were under WorkChoices.

It is very pleasing to see the Deputy Prime Minister confirming awards will again be reviewed on a regular basis to keep them in line with community standards and unions will be able to run test cases that deliver gains across the workforce.

This is not to say unions are satisfied with everything the Labor Government is proposing and there is much more work to do.

Restrictions on the content of collective agreements are unnecessary and the docking of minimum four hours pay for taking unprotected action is absurd.

The ability of workers to access arbitration or the courts in respect of the application of the safety net and collective agreements may pose practical problems.

Workers in State industrial relations jurisdictions should not have to face losing any of their existing protections and rights as they enter the new national system.

And the discriminatory laws for workers in the construction industry simply have to go.

There may be gaps in the draft legislation when we see them in their entirety and there may be further push back from employer groups or the Coalition in the Senate which will need to be addressed.

At this stage however, it is satisfying to see the progress being made towards scrapping WorkChoices.

We hope to see it soon consigned to the rubbish bin of history, along with other failed neo-liberal policies of deregulation and the corporate excess they have engendered.

For too long workers’ rights have gone backwards.

At the last election union members and the Australian public sent a very clear message they were rejecting the policies that have attacked workers’ rights and supported deregulation of the labour market.

We are now getting closer to taking workers’ rights forward in a substantial way. It won’t be the end of our campaign, but it will show we have started to turn the tide.

Jeff Lawrence's Op Ed for The Australian (17.11.08)
Courtesy of The Australian