Australias Workplace laws are undergoing their biggest change since the Workplace Relations Act was introduced in 1996. Jeremy Vermeesch investigates what it means for workers. [The Australian Worker, AWU, Summer 2005]

Sydney secretary Rebecca Bellamy would have no chance of justice, let alone a
job, under planned changes to industrial laws proposed by the Federal
Government. After falling pregnant in 2003, Rebecca was effectively sacked from
her full-time job at a smash repair company when her manager cut her hours and
made the position “casual.” Rebecca took her case to the Industrial Relations
Commission under unfair dismissal laws and was paid $10,300 compensation.
Melbourne bakery worker Elaine Baxter was sacked without notice from a small
shop where she had worked for 4½ years, including as the manager. “Anyone
who knows me knows it’s not fair or right,” Elaine told The Australian
Like Rebecca, Elaine is relying on our current unfairdismissal laws
to correct the mistake and restore her reputation as an honest worker. As far as
the government’s changes are concerned, Elaine is unequivocal: “It would be so
unfair if that did come into play. Then I think those employers would just have
free range to rort the system completely.”

Unfairly sacked

Millions of people like Rebecca and Elaine will have no way of seeking
justice under the government’s proposed new laws. Both women worked for small
businesses (ie. with 20 employees or less), which will be exempted from unfair
dismissal rules under the fi rst of the government’s changes.

Prime Minister John Howard says the new law will create tens of thousands of
extra jobs in small businesses, but the Federal Opposition says this claim is “rubbish” for which there is no evidence.

Bill of contempt

The so-called Fair Dismissal Bill, which has been rejected by the Senate 41
times over the past eight years, will allow small business workers to be sacked
without warning, and it’s just the fi rst cab off the rank in the government’s
fourth-term industrial relations agenda. Another 13 pieces of IR legislation
have been produced in the past, versions of which expected to be passed when the
government takes control of the Senate in July.

Additional legislation is expected to stop unions protecting people employed
as “independent contractors” from sub-standard pay and unlawful working

Unpacking the package

The following list aims to take the confusion out of the government’s
complicated workplace reforms. Each point provides a quick summary of the other
13 changes so far proposed to the Workplace Relations Act, with the main reason
why it is opposed by unions, workplace advocates, labour lawyers and human
rights activists.

Termination of Employment Bill

extends the Federal Government’s unfair dismissal laws to all registered
companies, overriding State rules. Not only exempts small businesses, but also
excludes casual workers with less than 12 months’ service from making unfair
dismissal claims.

Small Business Employment Protection Bill

prevents workers in businesses with less than 15 employees from receiving any
redundancy pay, regardless of how long they have worked in the job. Overrides
the historic Australian Industrial Relations Commission’s Test Case on
redundancy in 2003.

Choice in Award Coverage Bill

allows small businesses to opt out of Award rules requiring minimum legal pay
and conditions.Overrides major Federal Court decisions.

Award Simplification Bill

removes from all Federal Awards the basic “safety net” the following:

  • Notice of termination or payment in lieu of notice.
  • Long service leave with pay.
  • Bonus pay.
  • Leave for jury service.
  • Access to skills-based career paths with correct training and pay
  • Protecting the Low Paid Bill

    requires the Industrial Relations Commission to give primary consideration to
    the needs of the low paid and the unemployed when setting minimum wages in the
    ACTU’s annual wage case. Labour lawyers say this is code for accepting the
    Federal Government’s regular submissions to the wage cases restricting any pay
    rises to workers paid less than $15 an hour approximately. This would mean:

  • Tens of thousands of workers on around average wages, who have received
    annual increases of $18 or $19 a week in the most recent cases, would receive no
    pay rise at all.
  • Around one million workers earning less than $15 an hour would receive lower
    wage rises, eg. $10-$12 a week instead of $18-$19 a week (in line with
    government submissions to the latest cases).
  • Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employees) Promoting Safer
    Workplaces Bill

    exempts Commonwealth public service bosses from the ACT Labor Government’s
    groundbreaking industrial manslaughter laws, even if they are found to have
    negligently caused a worker’s death.

    Simplifying Agreement Making Bill

    Allows the government’s individual contracts (Australian Workplace Agreements
    or AWAs) to be approved without thorough checks to make sure they do not
    undercut legal minimum conditions. Also makes it easier for employers to extend
    non-union collective agreements, even if workers oppose the agreement.

    Better Bargaining Bill

    cuts back the internationally recognised basic right to strike by cancelling
    industrial action for so-called “cooling off periods” – even at the request of
    third parties not involved in the dispute. Also significantly limits the issues
    over which industrial action can be taken.

    Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill

    cuts back the internationally recognised basic rights to strike, freedom of
    association and collective bargaining in the construction industry with
    so-called “cooling off periods,” a ban on industry-wide agreements and
    restrictions on union organising.

    Right of Entry Bill

    prevents union representatives from responding to members’ complaints about
    unfair or unsafe practices by stopping workplace visits except under strict new
    conditions, even if workers want such a visit.

    Extended Prohibition of Compulsory Union Fees Bill

    extends the current ban on union bargaining fees to all registered companies,
    preventing unions from charging for their services on a user-pays principle like
    any business.

    Secret Ballots for Protected Action Bill

    erodes the internationally recognized basic right to strike by imposing
    unworkable, time-consuming and expensive requirements for secret ballot votes on
    proposed industrial action.

    Compliance with Court and Tribunal Orders Bill

    bans union officials from office for life on the basis of fines or orders
    made against them by tribunals or courts, regardless of the justice or
    roportionate responsibility of the case.