Sharan Burrow: Libs still hope the WorkChoices zombie can rise

While you are dining out or at the shops over the summer holidays, spare a few minutes to think about the young person serving you and how their rights at work have changed over the past two years.

Two years ago, that person was working under WorkChoices. Chances are they had no protection from unfair dismissal and little or no job security. It was possible they were employed on an Australian Workplace Agreement, which had stripped their minimum conditions to the bare basics.

Their employer could simply ignore them if they and their workmates wanted to join together to collectively bargain for better pay and conditions. And if they chose to join a union or even ask a union into their workplace, they ran the risk of harassment and discrimination from their boss.

This was the reality two years ago. Young workers, often in their first job in the retail or hospitality sectors, were the most vulnerable to the unfairness of WorkChoices. They had little knowledge of the limited rights they had, and alone were powerless to negotiate with an employer who held the ultimate bargaining chip: the power to hire and fire.

But in the last six months, we have seen some major steps forward for workers’ rights. The Fair Work Act came into being on 1 July, bringing with it new protections for unfair dismissal, rights to collective bargaining, and a good faith bargaining regime.

Further changes to come on 1 January will be just as significant. Foremost among them is the establishment of a safety net of modern, streamlined awards and the 10 National Employment Standards. These enshrine minimum conditions around working hours, leave entitlements, public holidays and notices of termination and redundancy pay. They are non-negotiable.

These are all changes that Australians voted for in 2007 when they gave the then-Labor Opposition a clear mandate to bury WorkChoices.

So, it is ironic that just at the same time as the rights of working Australians are set to again be improved, the Liberal Party is talking about taking us back to those dark days.

Make no mistake, despite the linguistic feats attempted by Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz and other Liberal frontbenchers to distance themselves from the phrase, the unfair and anti-worker elements of WorkChoices continue to set Coalition pulses racing.

In the weeks since Mr Abbott gained control of the Opposition, he has spoken favourably about bringing back WorkChoices-style individual contracts and the removal of unfair dismissal protection for small business employees, and he has refused to guarantee keeping the no disadvantage test.

Although some business lobby groups would like to make you think otherwise, the new system is working pretty much as expected. It began in the midst of the economic downturn, yet its smooth transition has exposed their shrill complaints as a deliberate attempt to block the restoration of rights for their employees.

One of the most encouraging aspects of the new system has been the willingness of some employers to re-engage in collective bargaining with their workforce. Collective bargaining is good for employers and employees who want to improve productivity, and ensure safe, secure and satisfying jobs in sustainable enterprises.

The introduction of modern, national awards on 1 January is a major reform that both employer and employee representatives have been seeking. Employers have had plenty of warning about both modern awards and the new safety net, and cannot use ignorance as an excuse not to meet their obligations and prevent workers from exercising their rights.

One of these new standards will be the right to request flexible working arrangements. Inflexible working hours has always been one of the major obstacles to participation in the workforce by parents and carers.

From 1 January, employers will for the first time have a legal obligation to seriously consider a request for flexible work arrangements, and only refuse it on reasonable grounds.

This could include anything from job sharing and part-time work, to working from home or changed starting and finishing hours.

There are also benefits to businesses from flexible hours, including increased staff retention, reduced absenteeism, and better employee satisfaction.

In a few months time, we will see another outcome of the fairer Australian workplace system when the first national wage case is held under a more rigorous and transparent wage-setting process. Not only did the earnings of more than a million workers go backwards under WorkChoices, but in the final indignity, they endured a pay freeze during the middle of an economic downturn.

There has never been any secret that unions are not satisfied with everything the Rudd Government has come up with under the Fair Work Act. We will continue to have arguments – both public and private – with the government about areas we think can be improved.

But when we look back over the past two years, there can be no doubt that Australian workers have moved on from the flawed WorkChoices experiment. The question is, does the Liberal-National Coalition really want to take us backwards?

This article first appeared on The Punch website.