Sharan Burrow: New IR Laws - Good for workers and good for business

The new collective bargaining laws introduced by the Rudd Government are a positive step into the future that unions and business should embrace. Workers and their families, employers, and the economy will benefit. That is a great legacy to pass onto future generations.

Mainstream business leaders know they have much to gain from a truly harmonised national system that will encourage fair and free bargaining and co-operative negotiations.

After an exhaustive and unprecedented process of consultation and input during the drafting of the Fair Work Bill, it is time for the vocal minority in the business community who are extreme proponents of WorkChoices to move on.

The coalition should also stick to the commitment it made just last week to bury WorkChoices and pass the new laws in the Senate.

After all, the overwhelming majority of employers never adopted WorkChoices and never left the collective bargaining system. They know the value of respecting their workers’ choice to be represented by a union.

They also recognise that fair remuneration for our labour and our skills is the engine of our economy as it drives productivity and creates shared wealth, generating growth equitably and sustainably.

Research shows collective agreements are significantly more likely to include provisions that enhance productivity and that collective bargaining improves morale,  lowers staff  turnover and helps employers tap the knowledge of  their workforce.

The new safety net of a minimum wage, national basic standards and awards will protect all workers, and the independent umpire and unfair dismissal protections will put fairness and job security back in place.

Together, these changes will safeguard the Australian community against the inequity and social turbulence of nations like the United States.

The bulk of employers never left the collective bargaining system, and for the majority of workplaces, it will be business as usual. But those employers who exploited the worst elements of WorkChoices must now face the reality that the rights of their workers will have to be respected.

It is understandable that groups representing different interests will robustly argue their case, but the public debate over the new industrial relations laws must be informed by the facts, not scaremongering.

There are a small number of extremist employer lobby groups and law firms who made hay under WorkChoices and that remains opposed to removing even the most oppressive elements of the Howard Government’s IR regime.

It does their case no good to engage in distortion and misinformation about the impact of the laws. The worst of these distortions concerns the ability of workers to access unions in their workplace. To a large extent, the new proposals simply reinforce practices that occurred without any great problems for many decades prior to 2006.

Labor’s proposed legislation would restore the balance removed by WorkChoices. It will provide protection for workers to prevent them being ripped off and allowing them to access help and advice in their workplace.

Unions will have entry rights to inspect employees’ records when a member suspects they have been underpaid or there have been other breaches of wages and conditions or workplace laws.

The system will retain a requirement for 24 hours notice and under the permit system, there are sanctions for misuse of records, including protections provided by the Privacy Act.

Union access to non-members’ records is vital to prevent the sort of discrimination and widespread exploitation workers faced under WorkChoices.

A second campaign of misinformation concerns the new bargaining stream for low-paid workers, which has been wrongly characterised as pattern bargaining.

This new bargaining stream is a major innovation because it will entitle the most vulnerable workers in our society to the same right to win improvements to their wages and conditions that the rest of the workforce enjoys. But this will be a highly circumscribed right, including the important caveat that workers will be unable to take industrial action.

There will be efficiency benefits for employers who choose to band together to bargain in this way, including the potential certainty that they are not being undercut by competitors.

For working Australians, the Fair Work Bill promises job security, greater income certainty, and the right to collectively bargain with your employer.

It will also bring stability to our industrial relations system after constant chopping and changing in the past decade.

These are the tenets of a modern system which will be good for families and good for productivity for decades to come.

Courtesy The Australian Financial Review (03.12.08)