Sharan Burrow: Fair Work Australia (FWA) Inaugural Session

Let me acknowledge the traditional owners of the land and thank the elders for their custodianship.
This is an historic day and for working Australians a day of celebration. I am proud to be here, with my colleague, Jeff Lawrence, the Secretary of the ACTU, and other union women and men representing those workers.

Let me congratulate the Government and in particular the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, for their commitment to restore fair industrial relations laws. That commitment has ensured that we have made it to today.

WorkChoices is dead, the Fair Work Act lives and Australia will be socially and economically strengthened as a result. Rights at work are back in place and entrusted to you.

And this great institution, an institution in transition but with a long and proud historical foundation, will continue to sit at the heart of Australia.

As an institution, the AIRC has, and FWA will be, respected, indeed trusted, as a result of its institutional strength and independence, an independence that is a touchstone often in highly charged emotional, industrial and political environments.

Of course, particular decisions have attracted criticism, vicious rumour would suggest even from the ACTU, but respect for the institution has remained. Now FWA will be even more embedded in working lives as its structures, scope and geographical location expand.

For most of the institution’s history, there has been limited parliamentary override of decisions. More recently, the legislature placed limits on how power could be exercised which did not serve any party well.

The new constitutional footing allows even greater parliamentary intervention in setting a safety net in a way not previously thought available. This will only work where the independence of the institution of FWA is the touchstone. Of critical importance is:

- Confidence in a strong, evidence-based approach is essential in setting the safety net.

- Timely settlement of disputes with a focus on practical lasting settlements that recognise that employers and employees have an ongoing relationship.

- Dealing with unfairness at work through unfair dismissal procedures, amongst other matters the focus on justice being seen to be done as well as
being done is critical.

- The expanded capacity for research and public consultation, for inquiry, has the potential to see even greater authority and expertise regarding the labour market vested in this institution, from minimum wages to workforce trends, changing community standards and social and economic benchmarks.

And

- With the best of the Workplace Authority resources to provide speedy advice with ease of access, advice on standards backed by the functions of the Ombudsman, then a powerful mix is indeed brewing here.

An Institution for a new modern environment
FWA will be an institution of enormous economic significance in a new modern environment. Despite the anxiety of the day as we experience the transition to ‘modern awards’, the reality is that with collective bargaining, the centrepiece of the new system, there will be a falling reliance on the safety net, coupled with the fact that wages policy, established centrally, will no longer be a practical economic lever.

Therefore FWA’s ability to conduct research and to hold inquiries on your own initiative will be significant. We hope that FWA will develop a capacity similar to HREOC or the Productivity Commission and become an important place for the development of evidence-based, non-partisan, labour market policy.

Indeed, it is in a unique position to take heed of and implement its own recommendations

Assisting bargaining
Mature bargainers will not be knocking on your door so often but significant group of workplaces need to make new arrangements - particularly groups of employers and employees joining in collective bargaining for the first time or rejoining after a period of less collaborative arrangements.

Your educative role regarding ‘good faith obligations’, where we will see FWA encourage parties to focus on the end-game or outcomes - and not the process - can generate a renewed focus on safe, secure and satisfying work in sustainable enterprises where employers and employees get a fair share of improvements in the productive capacity of the business.

New roles
Without question, the development of case law with regard to some of the more revolutionary aspects of the Fair Work Act will be of great interest to us:

- Assisting bargaining for low paid workers, seeing them lifted from the safety net and emerge as participants in the heart of the system, will be of social and economic significance.

- New roles in orders for equal pay for equal or comparable worth, which we would argue is no longer founded in an anti-discrimination framework but it is long overdue that evidence-based value placed on the work and associated skills.

- The justice role in identifying discriminatory terms in agreements and assisting parties to avoid these, facilitating dispute settling procedures to prevent parties offending the FWA prohibitions on discrimination, and of course, the exploitation of sham contracting arrangements, and much more, I am sure.

New “clients”
We also recognise that you will have new groups of employees looking to you for assistance. All employees and employers with an interest have standing in respect to the safety net, a standing that was previously reserved for registered organisations and parties to disputes.

People previously covered by state systems, or those who are award free, many of whom have not enjoyed protection through the collective instruments of awards and agreements or through unions, will look to FWA for assistance.

Your door may be open to a wider range of complainants. This may be FWA’s role in dispute settlement, or assisting the FW courts in respect to breaches of the law whether it be the NES, breach of awards, breach of the freedom of association or discrimination provisions of the Act.

And, of course, those workers involved in the spread to sectors previously not involved in bargaining.

This will pose new challenges for FWA, and for unions and employer organisations who are used to having a status before the tribunal.

We understand that efforts have already occurred to ensure FWA is accessible and open in its dealings with all persons, and for our part we look forward to co-operating with FWA to ensure an inclusive modern labour administration that continues to ensure ‘Decent Work’ – work where rights are respected in workplaces that are safe and productive.

We know that the history of the AIRC has shaped much of our way of life, not just living standards, but patterns of personal, family and community time built around, and increasingly within, patterns of work.

Can I acknowledge all past and present Commissioners and staff who have had a significant influence on the lives of working Australians. Australians trust you, they campaigned and voted for fair workplace laws inclusive of an independent umpire.

The seamless transition to FWA is an historical marker in what will be an on-going and strengthened role for a great institution in our society. You must be proud to be part of that, we are proud to be associated with this day and a future where rights at work are again buried deep in the heart of a decent Australia.