Sharan Burrow: Look at re-skilling, not redundancy

It has been a big year for good and bad reasons. We made progress towards burying WorkChoices, but we also had to cope with the direct and indirect impacts of the global financial crisis.

There is no doubt 2009 will be one of the most challenging periods we have experienced for many years. We face the double crunch of an economic downturn and climate change. Both pose significant threats to job security during the next 12 months.

The issues of employment and income security for working Australians and their families are, and always will be, a central concern of unions. In 2009, it will be our top priority.

Measures to safeguard jobs, stimulate the economy and protect the vulnerable must also be the No1 focus for employers and governments over the next couple of years.

The Federal Government has taken commendable action, including the economic security package that put cash in the wallets of families and pensioners before Christmas, the investment in nation-building infrastructure, a support package for the local car industry, and the regional and local community infrastructure program. But more will be needed. These measures must be directed squarely at preventing and minimising job losses, assisting workers where job losses do occur, and improving the circumstances of the 480,000 unemployed Australians.

But the responsibility for job security does not end with the Government. Job losses are not inevitable, and smart employers will hold on to their employees during the tough times so they are well-placed to ramp up again when the recovery begins.

The new business mantra for 2009 must be retain, re-skill and redeploy, not redundancy. The model here should be that adopted by the automotive sector, with some companies reducing production hours and making use of training days and leave entitlements as an alternative to cutting jobs. With additional funding and places under the Productivity Places Program, employers can make use of these days of agreed temporary stand-downs to retrain their workers with new skills.

This is the type of counter-cyclical thinking and investment that will retool the Australian workforce with the skills to drive growth and competitiveness as the economy picks up.

Difficult as the immediate problems confronting the economy are, the Government is right not to lose sight of the long-term picture with further targeted investment in infrastructure that will create sustainable, skilled jobs.

Carefully targeting further stimulus measures would ensure that Australia emerges from the economic downturn with a stronger and more resilient economy, while cutting emissions and developing competitive green industries and jobs.

There is one final and glaring element to providing job security for Australians in 2009 and beyond. That is a quick and smooth passage of the Fair Work Bill, which will establish the primacy of collective bargaining and a robust safety net with a fairer system of setting minimum wages.

The best buffer Australia has against a downturn in full employment is decent wages achieved by collective bargaining. This will maintain adequate household spending power to help cushion the economy.

The year ahead will be challenging, but unions are determined to ensure security for jobs and incomes is the top priority. If the Coalition parties pass the Fair Work Bill unchanged, we will be welcoming a fairer IR system and a fairer Australia.

size="2" color="#0000ff" face="Arial">First published in The Australian 31 December, 2008