The Federal Government’s industrial relations plans will give workers negligible say, argues ACTU Secretary Greg Combet.

CABINET meets today to finalise plans for the Howard Government’s overhaul of Australia’s industrial relations laws. Most attention has focused on the Government’s proposal for a single national industrial relations system.

But in reality the most insidious element of the Government’s agenda is its plan to get more workers on individual employment contracts, known as Australian workplace agreements, and undermine the access of employees to collective bargaining and an effective safety net of award conditions.

Treasurer Peter Costello put it this way:

“We should be trying to move to an industrial relations system where the predominant instrument is the individual contract.”

Even before the laws are drafted, the Government is ruthlessly pursuing this goal. Federal funding for universities and TAFEs has been made conditional on the offering of AWAs to all staff, even though employees have already freely voted in support of lawful collective agreements.

Funding for water infrastructure and civil and commercial construction projects has been made conditional on the Government’s industrial relations obsessions.

The states are being blackmailed to act as agents for the commonwealth’s unfair agenda.

This push for individual contracts threatens the basic rights of Australian workers in an unprecedented way.

The changes will greatly enhance the workplace power of employers at the expense of employees and their families.

The problem with AWAs is that the overwhelming majority of individual employees do not have equal bargaining power with their employer.

This imbalance in bargaining power has historically been the source of exploitation and unfair treatment of employees.

The right of employees to join unions and collectively bargain with their employer originated from the recognition in Australia and internationally of this imbalance in bargaining power.

Workers, by bargaining collectively, are able to approach the negotiating table on a fairer basis.

AWAs are used by employers to destroy collective bargaining. AWAs are pro-forma documents prepared by the employer or the Government’s Office of the Employment Advocate in identical and unilaterally determined terms.

Other than professionals and a few employees with skills in high demand, individual workers are rarely able to effectively negotiate AWAs because they do not have the necessary bargaining power.

The typical employer bargaining strategy with AWAs involves a take it or leave it demand to individual employees.

Employees who don’t sign are told they will suffer a specific consequence, such as the denial of a pay increase. Job applicants who don’t sign are refused employment.

This approach is accompanied by a refusal by the employer to collectively bargain with employees or to recognise the representative role of a union.

Employees who seek to collectively bargain may simply be disregarded by the employer, suffer discrimination and be denied effective union representation — without legal remedy. Many industrial disputes are now fought over the right of employees to reject AWAs and to collectively bargain, before pay and conditions are even discussed.

The Government’s no-disadvantage test for AWAs is a farce.

AWAs are secret, unable to be transparently reviewed, and are tested by agencies with outrageous conflicts of interest. The OEA has the role of both promoting and approving AWAS, and then investigating alleged breaches of the samedocuments it has promoted and authorised.

Recently the OEA also began outsourcing the approval of AWAs to industry partners (employer groups) that earn income on the basis of the number of AWAs they approve.

This is a scandal and a scam. The AWA no-disadvantage test is only assessed against minimum standards and not an employee’s existing pay and conditions.

This makes it lawful to cut people’s wages by hundreds of dollars if the employee was paid above minimum wages before signing an AWA.

Because total earnings are not part of the no-disadvantage test, penalty rates and overtime are often the first things an employee loses under an AWA. The potential for employee exploitation is rife and will worsen under Government plans to simplify AWAs.

The living standards and quality of life of working families will suffer. Other advanced economies, including the US, Canada and Britain, have ensured the right of employees to collectively bargain is protected in workplace laws.

This generally involves employees being guaranteed a genuine choice between collective and individual agreements.

If employees exercise their choice to collectively bargain, their employer has a legal obligation to bargain in good faith.

If the Howard Government does not, as appears likely, even consider the importance of collective bargaining rights, there will be dark days ahead for many Australian workers and their families.

This is why unions will oppose the Government’s plans and fight to protect the rights of Australian workers.

Research conducted for the Australian Council of Trade Unions shows that the more people know about the Government’s workplace plans the more they are concerned.

Also worrying for the Government is the fact that the same working families that received just $6 under the budget tax cuts are the ones who have the most to lose under proposed workplace changes.

If industrial relations changes take these families backwards at a time when many of them are already struggling to keep their heads above water the political consequences for the Government could be significant.