Australian workers need the urgent introduction of new industrial relations laws to protect them from the downside of a slowing economy, unions say.
The ACTU has warned the Senate inquiry into the Fair Work Bill that working Australians are already experiencing cuts to their hours of employment and downgrading of their conditions as businesses respond to the downturn.
“Workers need protection in good times and in bad,”  ACTU President Sharan Burrow said. “The state of the economy only makes it more urgent that the Fair Work Bill is passed by the Senate.”
“Over the past decade under the Howard Government, we saw extreme deregulation of our industrial relations system that left workers more vulnerable than ever before.
“Working Australians remain highly exposed to rip-offs in this downturn because of WorkChoices.
“Under WorkChoices, businesses have had the freedom to sack people unfairly, to use individual contracts to slash wages and conditions such as redundancy pay, and to deny workers the right to collective bargaining and union representation.”
“The danger is that without new IR laws employers could use the economic crisis as an excuse to attack the wages and conditions of workers so they can preserve profits for shareholders and keep obscene executive salaries.
The centrepiece of the proposed laws will be collective bargaining.
Ms Burrow said collective bargaining would deliver improved flexibility and productivity by employers and employees working together to respond to changes in business and economic conditions.
“These laws will be good for the economy and good for workers,” Ms Burrow said.
The ACTU’s submission to the inquiry calls for the laws to be passed with several important amendments to restore workers’ rights and ensure the Rudd Government fully delivers its election promise to abolish WorkChoices.
The changes needed include removing limits on what workers and employers can bargain about and include in a workplace agreement. As is stands, the Bill would prevent workers from bargaining for better unfair dismissal protections and for improved access to advice and assistance from unions in their workplace.
Ms Burrow said the day of reckoning was fast approaching for the Coalition on whether it would support the new, fairer IR laws in the Senate, or retain WorkChoices.
“The Liberals and Nationals have already recklessly jeopardised the livelihoods of thousands of workers with their obstruction of the economic stimulus package,” Ms Burrow said.
“Failure to support the Fair Work Bill will confirm that the Coalition really does not care about working Australians and has not moved on from the Howard-Costello era.”