THE Federal Government’s recently announced workplace relations changes were warmly welcomed by employers, who claimed they will promote labour force flexibility, reduce compliance costs and underpin renewed productivity growth.
“The reform agenda outlined by the government addresses each of the three areas which, after 10 years since the last major overhaul of workplace relations, require change to keep our economy competitive,” said Michael Chaney, vice president of the Business Council of Australia. While the council had hoped that the reforms would go further on award simplification, particularly in the reduction of the number of allowable matters, Chaney said the benefits provided by the broad package of reforms would far outweigh the disadvantages in retaining a degree of complexity in award making.
The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) also welcomed the proposed changes, claiming they are the next logical steps on the path to modernising Australia’s system of employment regulation.
“For the package to work, industry will need to implement the changes and use the new opportunities presented,” said Peter Hendy, chief executive of the ACCI.
“The government will need to get the detail of this package right and make the new laws effective in both large and small workplaces.”
Hendy also acknowledged a role for unions in the system, but he said “unions, like employer bodies, cannot operate at the expense of the non-union sector, nor ignore the mutual benefits of bargaining at the enterprise level”.
Heather Ridout, chief executive of The Australian Industry Group, said the changes were “in sync with the needs of contemporary workplaces, the vast majority of which are operating in a highly competitive environment. “The proposals involve big shifts in the way workplace relations will be conducted in Australia,” she said.
“The reforms outlined are far reaching and implementing them will pose challenges which will need to be managed carefully if the benefits are to be realised and harmony and fairness preserved,” she said.
Ridout also pointed out that while the government had gone further than expected with unfair dismissal laws, the changes were in response to the “enormous frustration” of Australian businesses with the operation of the existing laws.
Australian Business Limited even said the government should “go back to the drawing board” and develop an unfair dismissal system for all employers — not just those with fewer than 100 employees.
“It is unfair to employers and employees for two unfair dismissal regimes to run concurrently we believe there should be one unfair dismissal regime and it should cover all workers,” said Mark Bethwaite, chief executive of Australian Business Limited.
Unions braced themselves for the announcement, fearing legislative changes will significantly reduce their future influence in the Australian workplace.
The ACTU said the Federal Government’s changes to industrial relations laws would destroy the award system, limit the ability of workers to collectively bargain, abolish unfair dismissal protection for nearly four million people, weaken the Industrial Relations Commission and hold down minimum wages. “It’s an absolute farce for the Federal Government to try and spin these new laws as anything other than cowering to the pressure of big business,” said ACTU secretary, Greg Combet.
“The Australian public is very concerned that the Howard Government will soon have control of the Senate and they certainly understand that the path is wide open for the abuse of power.”
Citing a poll of 600 voters, the ACTU said 62 per cent believed that wages would be reduced under the changes while 69 per cent felt the laws would create greater fear in the work place.
A further 82 per cent were very concerned about the reduction of the ability of workers to collectively bargain with their employer.
Combet re-emphasised the ACTU’s commitment to fight the changes via workplace campaigns, building support in the wider community and working with State and Territory Governments to oppose the laws.
• A unitary national workplace relations system, covering 85-90 per cent of Australian employees
• Exempting businesses with fewer than 100 employees from unfair dismissal laws and creating a unitary national system for unfair dismissal
• Extending probationary periods from three to six months for companies with more than 100 employees
• The Office of the Employment Advocate to approve all collective and individual agreements instead of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC). Agreements to take effect from the date of lodgement rather than the date of approval
• Workplace agreements to run for up to five years
• Establishing an Australian Fair Pay Commission (AFPC) to set adult minimum wage on a periodic basis, replacing the national minimum wage case heard by the AIRC
• Replacing the existing no-disadvantage test with an Australian Fair Pay and Conditions Standard that will include minimum award classification wages as set by the AFPC and the legislated minimum conditions of employment
• Legislating for key minimum conditions of employment such as annual leave, parental leave, personal/carer’s leave and the maximum number of ordinary working hours
• Removing jury service, notice of termination, long service leave and superannuation from allowable award matters
• Establishing a taskforce to review existing award wage and classification structures with the view to rationalising the existing classification structures
Craig Donaldson is the Editor of Human Resources magazine, Lawyers Weekly’s sister publication.