From a campaign that began almost four years ago to the day, Australian workers are set to have greater protection for their jobs, their conditions and their workplace rights.

The Fair Work Act, which begins operation today, has turned the tide on a decade of workers’ rights being undermined, which resulted in us working longer hours for little reward and feeling less secure about our jobs.

The new laws will not only protect jobs in the economic downturn, but will provide a framework to improve our lives at work and outside.

They are the outcome of a historic campaign by Australian unions, which harnessed community support for strengthening the rights of working Australians.

Work Choices will be regarded by future generations as a brief but dark period of industrial history. But in less than four years, it had a profound effect on the lives of working Australians.

They had their take home pay ripped off, lost overtime and penalty rates, were forced to sign individual contracts to secure a job and chafed at the injustice of employers refusing to bargain collectively. Job security was smashed with most Australians losing their right to unfair dismissal.

Australian unions were determined to reverse these attacks on working people. The Your Rights at Work campaign touched the community’s demand for fair workplaces. The Fair Work Act is the result of the Australian people voting for Labor’s policy to abolish Work Choices.

The new laws improve the lives of working Australians in six primary ways. Work Choices slashed unfair dismissal rights for more than 4 million Australians and left many young and vulnerable workers with no protections.

Now everyone will be protected from unfair dismissal, although qualifying periods will be longer for workers in small businesses and we will need to continue to monitor exploitation.

Workers’ pay and conditions will be guaranteed by a 10-point National Employment Standards safety net that cannot be undermined.

This will protect entitlements such as maximum weekly hours of work, overtime pay, penalty rates, redundancy, annual leave and rest breaks.

New modern awards will also safeguard minimum wages, types of employment, superannuation and procedures for dispute settlement.

Collective bargaining will be the centrepiece of the new IR system. If the majority of workers want to bargain for a union collective agreement, the employer must co-operate and it must be conducted in good faith, meaning employers must be fair dinkum about trying to get a result.

Research consistently shows that collective bargaining gets the best outcomes for workers up to 6 to 18 per cent better than individual contracts.

And groups of workers in low-paid sectors that have previously found it difficult to bargain collectively such as cleaners, hospital workers and community workers will be able to get help to do so.

Fair Work Australia, a new independent umpire with real teeth, will be able to assist with bargaining, conciliate and mediate disputes and issue binding decisions for the low paid when bargaining fails.

The courts will be given a new role in overseeing the application of awards and the National Employment Standards, providing a strong deterrent against the infringement of workers’ rights and entitlements.

Minimum wage workers can look forward to a much fairer system of setting their pay under the new laws.

Australian Workplace Agreements, used to break down collective strength in the workplace and to drive down wages and conditions, are now outlawed.

On average, workers employed on AWAs and other individual contracts earn almost 6 per cent less than those under union-negotiated agreements. In future, common law contracts will have to be above the industry award.

Finally, no longer will the basic right to belong to a union be eroded by threats of dismissal, pressure, discrimination or victimisation.

Union delegates will be protected during bargaining and it will be unlawful to take action or discriminate against someone simply because they are a union member. There will be a guaranteed right to union representation when it is needed to settle a dispute or negotiate on a worker’s behalf.

The new fairer workplace laws are a great step forward but the task of strengthening the lives of working Australians is an ongoing process. We have more work to do to ensure that the laws covering construction workers are recognised as unfair and have no place in Australia’s industrial relations system and that we have the strongest possible occupational health and safety laws to guarantee safety at work.

But this week, we celebrate the fact that with the Fair Work Act, Australians again have proper rights at work.

Article originally appeared in Sydney Morning Herald, 01.07.09