Attempts by the Liberal Party and business lobby groups to portray unions as a bogey are examples of the same tired old pro-WorkChoices posturing that the Australian public rejected at the last election, says the ACTU.
The fact is Australians overwhelmingly endorse the role of unions in defending workers’ rights and ensuring workplaces are fair.
The ridiculous scaremongering that is being used to water down important elements of the Labor Government’s proposed Fair Work Bill should be rejected.
Changes to the new industrial relations laws proposed by the Coalition would seriously undermine workers’ protections and leave WorkChoices largely intact.
They demonstrate a misunderstanding of the role of unions in Australia’s IR system and the damage done by WorkChoices, said ACTU President Sharan Burrow.
“These are not insignificant changes that are being proposed, but go to the very heart of the Fair Work Bill,” Ms Burrow said.
“They would leave WorkChoices in place, with its recipe for reducing pay and conditions, and taking away fundamental protections and rights at the very time when Australian workers need greater protection and security from the economic downturn.
“Moreover, they ignore more than a century of industrial relations practice in this country, in which unions have always had a fundamental role in looking after workers.
“Instead of unsubstantiated allegations and myths, any amendments to the Labor Government’s Fair Work Bill should be based on sound arguments that can be demonstrated to improve both fairness and productivity.”
Unfair dismissal protection
There is simply no evidence that modest unfair dismissal laws are a disincentive to hiring, Ms Burrow said.
“This is an argument that has been had time and time again in the Senate and there is no evidence to support any significant adverse impact on jobs from unfair dismissal laws.”
Ms Burrow said workers in small businesses deserve to be treated fairly and the Government went to the last election with a policy to define small business as those with 15 or less employees.
“There should be no reduction in the number of workers protected as the Coalition is proposing,” she said
Workers’ access to unions
Ms Burrow said the proposed amendments to restrict union access to workers’ records and to workplaces for discussion purposes would leave workers without the security of union help to make sure that employers pay them their correct wages and entitlements.
The fact is that unions have a traditional role in ensuring employers comply with the law and the Fair Work Bill merely continues this role.
Unions have traditionally had the ability to see the records of both members and non-members, so they can investigate suspected underpayments and stop workers being ripped off.
Unions sometimes need to see non-member records to prevent discrimination and ensure that members have not been paid less than non-members.
Along with the permit system and the requirement for 24 hours notice to be given of any visit, the Fair Work Bill has additional safeguards and obliges officials to comply with the Privacy Act when accessing records.
“This Bill does not grant unions any new-found ability to enter workplaces,” Ms Burrow said.
“What it does is allow workers to have access to unions for advice and consultation in their workplace, with safeguards for employers.
“We know that under WorkChoices, employers were given a free hand to slash wages and conditions, and if workers didn’t like it they were shown the door. Working men and women have a right to know that they’re being paid adequately, that their conditions are what you’d expect by way of comparison to an award or agreement.
“We need a transparent system to ensure these rules are being followed. Most employers are decent and will follow the rules, but there is a legitimate role for unions to enter workplaces when a breach is suspected to keep employers honest.”
Last resort arbitration
The Coalition also wants to limit the right for employees and employers to last resort workplace determinations by the independent umpire when bargaining breaks down.
These determinations by Fair Work Australia would only be available when there were persistent and flagrant breaches of good faith bargaining by one party, or in limited circumstances when low-paid workers and their employer have exhausted all opportunities to reach agreement.
“The thrust of the Fair Work Bill is on collective bargaining at the enterprise level, but it can only be successful if both parties approach negotiations in good faith,” Ms Burrow said.
“If workplace determinations are not available, we are consigning millions of low-paid workers in industries such as hospitality and catering, child care and cleaning to a lifetime on the minimum wage, with no control over their destiny or ability to bargain for higher pay,” said Ms Burrow.