EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
'Simpler, fairer' labour laws? You've got to be kidding!
, November 5, 2005
Under new laws, workers will have to become industrial relations experts overnight, writes Peter Westmore.With public fanfare, Prime Minister John Howard last month unveiled the Federal Government's new industrial law which, he said, will provide a simpler, fairer national industrial relations system across Australia.
This week, that legislation is to be introduced in Federal Parliament.
To get the message across, the Government has already spent over $30 million in TV, press and radio advertising, although the complexity of the message - which includes four-full page advertisements in the broadsheet press - seems determined to obscure, rather than clarify what it is all about.
Much of the advertising is clearly propaganda - telling us how we live in "a stronger economy", how the package is all about "securing our future", and the like. Much of it is devoted to telling us "what isn't changing", so that the final impact of the changes is difficult to discern.
However, as state and federal governments all agree that the changes will have a significant impact - employers strongly supporting them and the ACTU being violently opposed - the issue is clearly one of great public importance.
Historically, the Australian states as well as the Commonwealth Government have had separate industrial relations systems, which developed from the earliest years of federation.
While the federal system has become more powerful, the state systems still cover a significant proportion of the workforce in all states except Victoria, which abolished the state system during the 1990s, under Jeff Kennett.Unitary system
In essence, the Federal Government aims to abolish the state systems, shift employees off awards onto workplace agreements, remove the power of the Industrial Relations Commission to set minimum pay rates and shift it to the new Fair Pay Commission.
In practice, the new system will not necessarily be simpler or fairer than the existing system. Currently, almost all detailed award negotiations are conducted by union representatives or officials, operating under complex but clearly defined rules.
Under the new system, the negotiations will be transferred to ordinary workers, who will have to become industrial relations experts overnight. They will have to navigate their way through a minefield of minimum conditions, minimum and award classification wages, and entitlements (which can be bargained away), even before getting down to determining actual wages, which can be negotiated either individually or through a collective agreement.
All in all, the new system is one of mind-numbing complexity.
The new system is clearly intended to marginalise trade unions.
There have been instances where unions have undoubtedly misused their industrial muscle, but unions remain vital for the protection of employees' wages and conditions, and have played a key role in sharing the benefits of improved productivity from capital to labour, thereby maintaining the standard of living of all Australians.
While there has been a strong tendency - encouraged by governments - to introduce more flexibility into working conditions in Australia, one of the damaging side-effects has been a shift towards part-time and casual work. This benefits employers, who can roster employees to maximise profitability; but is often damaging to workers who find themselves with long working days or part-time work.
The new system exploits the most vulnerable employees - those who work in unskilled occupations with part-time work - instead of protecting them.
The plan to abolish unfair dismissal laws for small businesses can be justified in terms of encouraging employment in the most flexible businesses, but extending it to companies with up to 100 employees (usually, with turnovers of $10 million or so), denies reasonable protection to many workers.
Little wonder, therefore, that most people - to the extent that they can understand what is going on - are opposed to the changes.
With a majority in both Houses of Parliament, the Federal Government is expected to pass its new industrial legislation through parliament before Christmas. But this will not be the end of the matter.
The states have threatened that they will take action in the High Court to challenge the constitutionality of the new laws. It is understood that the new laws will rely on the corporations power in the Commonwealth Constitution (which covers company law), not the industrial relations power which allows the Commonwealth to enact laws for the prevention and settlement of interstate industrial disputes.
While the High Court has adopted a broader interpretation of the powers of the Federal Government in recent years, it is not certain that the court will extend its powers in this way.
Additionally, all states (except Victoria) will maintain their state industrial systems, and will undoubtedly try to encourage people to switch from the federal to the state systems.
Despite the Federal Government's advertising blitz, the new industrial law changes need substantial amendment if they are to meet the objective of a simpler, fairer industrial relations system, particularly for employees.
- Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.