Sharan Burrow: Give Fair Work real power

Collective bargaining rights are critical for the wellbeing of Australian workers.

Take the case of Louise who works for a community organisation and has a demanding role including dealing with clients with complex health and welfare needs. She is paid $36,000 a year and struggles to pay her rent. She would like her union to initiate collective bargaining and negotiate improvements for her and others in the social services sector.

The Rudd Government's plans for industrial relations, described by the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard last week will make it possible for Louise and others in this sector to ask their union to initiate a multi-employer agreement with the help and guidance of a new Industrial Umpire - Fair Work Australia. This should be good news and if successful will give real access to collective bargaining for those low paid workers on the award safety net.

The other good news for workers this year is the Government has banned individual contracts, facilitated the process for creating modern awards and outlined a new safety net of minimum legislative standards. It is also proposing unfair dismissal protections which give back job security to workers in small business.

For workers like Louise collective bargaining rights and restoring basic protections for workers are welcome centre pieces of the new industrial relations system. WorkChoices will be turned on its head.

So what's the problem?

Under the current proposals there is a real danger if negotiations fall over at the last hurdle. We are concerned that the industrial umpire maybe left without a whistle to rule on a fair go for Louise and her colleagues. That is, Fair Work Australia would not have the power to be able to make a ruling that would settle the dispute and make an enterprise agreement.

Australians agree that a strong and independent umpire is essential for collective bargaining to work. Indeed you wouldn't send an umpire into the grand final without a whistle and expect them to make the game work fairly so why would we do that to the industrial umpire?

Unless Fair Work Australia has enough power to settle disputes, employers will be able to frustrate negotiations and prevent workers from achieving a result.

Another major problem with the Coalition"s WorkChoices laws is the red tape for businesses in complying with complex restrictions on the content of workplace agreements. With these new laws we have the chance to fix this.

Placing restrictions on what can be included in workplace agreements is unnecessary and outmoded. Why should there be a limit on what workers and their employers can agree on?

Business representatives are selling the workplaces of the future short if their workplace arrangements cannot accommodate issues such as workforce planning, skills development or numbers of apprentices. Employees have a legitimate interest in a wide range of issues, including how to save energy, reduce waste and support climate change solutions in their workplace.

In countries where workers have a limited right to collective bargaining there are frightening levels of inequality. When wealth is not distributed equally, communities have less spending power and business suffers as well.

With just weeks to go before Labor's new laws are tabled in parliament, unions urge the Government to consider these matters carefully. We need new IR laws that will support Australian workers and the economy for decades to come so let's get the balance right.

Op Ed originally appeared in ABC Online (24.09.08)