The government’s workplace relations focus is too narrow, writes ACTU Secretary Greg Combet.

In the past week, the government has been keen to portray the future direction of workplace relations in Australia as a struggle between its ‘successful’ de-regulation on the one hand and Labor’s plans to ‘re-regulate’ the labour market on the other.

In an effort to regain the political ascendancy, Treasurer Peter Costello has even resorted to fantasy, suggesting that the government’s individual employment contracts, Australian workplace agreements , can help meet the challenges of an ageing population.

All of this misses the point. The priority workplace issues do not involve AWAs or even the industrial relations laws. They are driven by the competitive pressures in the economy and are manifest in unease about work/family balance, longer working hours, low wages and job insecurity.

Mark Latham has grasped this, the government has not.

What we need in Australia is a debate about the real issues affecting working people and the need for improved standards to underpin economic flexibility.

This debate must begin with a recognition that the Australian economy and workplace have changed irrevocably.

The opening of the economy and the introduction of enterprise bargaining has given many workers more choices and opportunities, and has been critical to Australia’s outstanding economic performance over the last 10 years.

During this period, GDP growth has averaged 4 per cent a year, adding $200 billion to the economy in real terms. An extra 1.8 million jobs have been added to the workforce, including 1 million new jobs for women.

But, accompanying these changes, issues have emerged in our workplaces and our communities. There are areas in which the current system is not delivering and needs reform.
Staffing levels have been reduced and workloads and working hours have increased. These pressures have increased the stress on individual employees and family and community relationships.

Not enough of the new jobs being generated by our booming economy are full-time or permanent.

Much of our jobs growth has also been concentrated in low-skill and low-pay areas. Some 87 per cent of all the net new jobs created in the 1990s paid less than $26,000 a year, almost half the jobs paid less than $15,600 a year.

Better standards are needed to underpin growth and to deliver better outcomes for more people. This means an improved safety of minimum wages. It means employment rights that allow people a genuine choice to be better parents as well as productive employees. It means allowing casual and contract employees who are in reality de facto permanent workers the opportunity to access community standards such as paid sick leave.

Part of the coalition’s strategy is always to portray Labor as the regulators who want to turn back the clock on workplace change. All of this nonsense conveniently overlooks how Labor and the union movement took the hard decisions in the 1980s and 1990s that laid the basis for today’s economic prosperity. The ACTU and unions supported the decentralisation of the industrial relations system and we remain committed to decentralised workplace bargaining.

Experience has shown, however, that some sensible changes are needed. Unions want a collective bargaining system that requires employers and unions to bargain in good faith. We also want a decent across-the-board safety net of minimum wages that can’t be undercut by AWAs.

Despite eight years of the federal government championing them, less than 1.2 per cent of the workforce is covered by AWAs. They are inefficient, ineffective and unfair and they should be eliminated.

Sensible changes such as this will support the participation of more people, including parents and older workers, in the workforce. This is vital to economic growth and productivity. The government’s preoccupation with old ideas will not stand the country in good stead.

There are worrying signs emerging in the Australian economy. A large portion of our growth is being driven by consumer spending and debt. There are also signs productivity growth is slowing.

Dithering around with AWAs will not address these significant underlying issues. Investment in skills development, technology and infrastructure will be crucial, and it is vital that the government provides leadership.

The sooner we all focus on the real issues in the workplace and in the wider economy, the better off we will be.