WORKPLACE RELATIONS: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
New workplace reforms: the devil is in the detail
, July 30, 2005
Unskilled and semi-skilled workers could be worse off under the Coalition's proposed workplace reforms writes Peter Westmore.Although the exact shape of the Federal Government's new industrial laws is still to be finally released, some aspects of the Government's proposed laws threaten to seriously weaken the position of employees with little bargaining power.
The main issue of contention remains the Federal Government's plan to remove unfair dismissal laws for companies which employ fewer than 100 workers.
There can be no doubt that unfair dismissal laws have discouraged many small businesses from taking on additional employees; and some strange decisions of the Industrial Relations Commission have reinforced their fears.
The ACTU is exploiting the risk that changes in the law will leave employees vulnerable to unreasonable pressure from employers.
But a number of other issues have now arisen. In a public statement on the release of the new policy, the Federal Minister for Workplace Relations, Kevin Andrews, said that the Government would guarantee just five minimum conditions: minimum wages, ordinary working hours, and three leave conditions, covering annual leave, personal/carer's leave, and parental/maternity leave.
However, under the existing federal industrial relations system, there are not five but 20 prescribed conditions which need to be included in either an award or agreement.
Under the Government's plan, an award or agreement need no longer make provision for long-service leave, notice of termination, superannuation, skill-based classifications, and a range of other matters. (The Minister argues that some of these matters are already contained in other legislation, e.g. superannuation, and therefore do not have to be part of the award system.)
The Government has reduced the number of "prescribed matters" from 20 down to five as part of its drive to simplify awards and to reduce the role of unions in the IR system.
However, existing awards have not arisen in a vacuum, but as a result of industrial disputes. Their removal from awards or agreements could aggravate industrial disputation, not reduce it.
In any case, award simplification has been an objective of successive governments, and has been implemented by the Industrial Relations Commission over a number of years.
Under the new system, individual employees will be able to try to get more matters included in their workplace agreements, but failure to include matters in an agreement will leave employees unprotected.Conditions whittled away
The system is likely to have minimal effect on workers in skilled occupations; but for the mass who are employed in unskilled or semi-skilled occupations in service industries such as retailing and hospitality, existing conditions are likely to be whittled away.
In the past, unions have traded improved efficiency and productivity in the workplace for higher wage rates. With the changes in awards, it will be far more difficult for unions to win on these matters.
Under the Government's changed laws, collective agreements will by-pass the Industrial Relations Commission. Along with individual agreements, they will be lodged with the Office of the Employment Advocate (OEA), and take effect from the time of lodgement.
The effect of this will be to marginalise unions, particularly in smaller workplaces, and to encourage workplace agreements rather than awards. Workplace agreements, for which legislation was introduced by the Howard Government in 1996, currently cover only about 3 per cent of the workforce.
The new measures will undoubtedly increase this, if only because the agreement process is being streamlined to facilitate them. According to Nick O'Malley in the Sydney Morning Herald
, though present staff cannot be forced into workplace agreements, employers may refuse to employ new staff who won't sign them (SMH
, July 2, 2005.)
The Federal Government believes that minimum wages and conditions will be protected by the arrangements it will set in place.
It says that legislated conditions, together with the minimum wages set by the Australian Fair Pay Commission, will form the Australian Fair Pay and Conditions Standard. "The Standard will provide genuine protection for all Australian workers and drive continued jobs growth through easier access to workplace bargaining," Mr Andrews said.
"The new Standard will be the test for all agreements and will make it easier for employers and their employees to compare their agreement against this new safety net of fair pay and conditions. This approach and the new Standard strike a sensible and fair balance between business certainty and safeguarding employee rights."
While established wages and conditions are unlikely to change immediately, the erosion of award conditions and removal of job protection for many workers takes Australia closer to the American labour market, where workplace flexibility and job mobility are nearly universal.
While skilled employees benefit from this system, those without skills can become completely marginalised in low-wage, part-time or casual work, or worse still, unemployment, where they become dependent on the welfare system.