Unions have today welcomed the important next step taken by the Labor Government towards scrapping Work Choices and restoring the rights of Australian workers by clarifying aspects of its proposed new industrial relations laws.

Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard has in a speech at the National Press Club today confirmed that Australian workers will have a right to genuine collective bargaining, union representation and other protections in the Rudd Government’s new IR system.

The Minister has confirmed that the right of workers to genuine collective bargaining and union representation will be at the core of a fair IR system, said ACTU President Sharan Burrow.

Australian workers will also regain protection from unfair dismissal, a fairer system of setting minimum wages, and the regular review of awards and minimum employment standards.

Unions however are concerned that Labor’s new independent umpire, Fair Work Australia, will  not have sufficient powers to settle disputes. This could particularly disadvantage low paid workers by fettering multi-employer bargaining.

“In most cases, employers and workers will be able to reach agreement without any intervention from the independent umpire,” Ms Burrow said. “But in a small number of cases, as a last resort the umpire will need the power to step in and resolve disputes.

“We welcome the fact that Fair Work Australia will be able to ensure that collective bargaining occurs and that parties can be directed to engage in the process of bargaining.

“This will bring an end to the type of unfair behaviour we have seen in recent weeks from employers like Telstra, Cochlear, Maxitrans and Pilbara Iron.”

Ms Burrow also welcomed the greater protection against discrimination against workers who take on a union delegate role or stand up for their rights.

She said an area of remaining concern was the restrictions on the scope of bargaining and the content of agreements which appeared to be based on an outmoded concept of matters pertaining to the employment relationship.

“Legislation should create a more modern framework that allows bargaining about wages and conditions relevant to the modern economy and recognises the interest that employees have in the role of the company in the broader community. Bargaining should take account of changes in society, reflecting the modern workplace and current issues, such as climate change.

“The requirement that employers deduct four hours wages for unprotected industrial action is also harsh and counter-productive. It has the potential to turn a half-hour strike into a half-day one.”

“Unions look forward to the introduction of Labor’s new IR laws as soon as possible, and call on the Liberal Party under its new leadership to reverse its support of Work Choices,” Ms Burrow said.

“However, it is disappointing that workers will have to wait until 1 July 2009 for key elements such as unfair dismissal protection and the right to collective bargaining to take effect.”