Hundreds of thousands of Australian workers need an exit strategy from WorkChoices agreements that have locked them into sub-standard pay and conditions for years to come, say unions.

The ACTU has declared that the abolition of Australian Workplace Agreements and other WorkChoices instruments that rip-off employees is a major piece of unfinished business for the Labor Government.

In a major example identified by unions, workers employed on AWAs or Interim Transitional Employment Agreements at Austral Bricks’ Summer Hill plant in Victoria are almost $7500 a year worse off than those employed under the company enterprise agreement.

ACTU President Sharan Burrow said many of these agreements would fail to pass the new Better Off Overall Test under the Labor Government’s new Fair Work Act.

“These AWAs and non-union agreements are the remnants of WorkChoices,” Ms Burrow said.

“They disadvantage employees, but they are also unfair to competing businesses that have done the right thing and negotiated collective agreements with their workers.

“There needs to be a mechanism to allow these workers to opt out of these contracts and return to coverage by the modern award safety net or a collective agreement.”

Ms Burrow said the situation at Austral Bricks highlighted how AWAs had also been used to undermine collectively bargained pay and conditions, and create a two-tiered workforce.

The AWAs and their temporary successors, ITEAs, were introduced into the company in the last two years under the WorkChoices IR laws. Signing them was made a condition of employment.

A comparison prepared by the CFMEU reveals that an extruder operator on an AWA would earn $1225.38 a week, while an employee on the enterprise agreement would earn $1369.19 for the same number of hours. Over a year, this is a difference of $7478.12 as a result of a lower hourly rate and no penalty rates under the AWA.

“Despite a clear desire from these employees to revert to the union-negotiated collective agreement, Austral Bricks has refused to allow these AWAs or ITEAs to be withdrawn.

“To totally remove the legacy of Howard’s WorkChoices from the IR landscape, there must be legislation to help these workers and others return to collective bargaining.

“There are around 520,000 people still on AWAs or non-union contracts left over from WorkChoices. The common thread to these WorkChoices contracts is that they were used to take away conditions and entitlements such as overtime rates, weekend and night penalty rates, casual loadings and redundancy pay.

“Thousands of workers will be stuck on lower pay, conditions and rights for several more years unless the Rudd Government brings these job contracts into line with its new IR laws,” said Ms Burrow.