EMPLOYERS ARE working with legal teams to scale back WorkChoices after Parliament formally declared the initiative “dead”. Yet lawyers believe round one of the changes are far from complicated.
The Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill effectively introduces 37, mostly technical, amendments to the system. The Bill puts a final end-date on Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) and lays the foundations for a more substantial workplace relations Bill likely to be introduced later this year to ensure the Government’s planned workplace relations system is fully operational by 1 January 2010.
Yet while the changes may appear far reaching, David Cross, partner at Deacons does not believe the statutory drafting to make it happen has been particularly complicated. “The real issue is how it’s going to be done in practice. The statutory language is not particularly detailed,” he said.
Joe Catanzariti, partner and leader of the national practice group on workplace relations and employment law at Clayton Utz, said the changes are manageable: “I don’t think there is a great impact in round one of the legislation, except that employers who did embark on AWAs are now spending time looking at their strategies going forward.”
The Bill, inevitable since the Labor Party’s election win in November 2007, has already seen a number of businesses move to get their employee contracts in line with the new system. The changes have pushed an increase in movement as employers seek legal advice on how best to approach the amendments and in some cases prepare to incorporate Interim Transitional Employment Agreements (ITEAs).
Catanzariti said that his clients are by no means concerned about the changes. “It’s not doom and gloom. They’re embracing the change and moving forward,” he said. “I think our clients’ major concerns at the moment are about interest rates and the economy and the pressure that will have on business.”
Yet the changes will see a continued short-term spike in work for lawyers involved in industrial relations, with a more extensive bump-up in involvement to occur with the introduction of the second Bill of reforms.
“There will be a question of waiting for the balance of reform which is due to be realised in the next Bill, originally set for next year, but potentially released sooner than that,” Cross said.
Although the details are yet to be confirmed, this balance of reform may see the introduction of an “in good faith” bargaining tool for employees who move to collectively negotiate with employers.
Cross believes in seeing how bargaining has played out under similar circumstances in the United States, this is likely to be an interesting reform. “The employer may be asked to hand over financial information on a subject, and there’s the issue that it could be overly sensitive or very confidential information. This is something that will need to be navigated here, otherwise the idea of bargaining in good faith becomes a dead letter,” he said.
“It will be a new environment that lawyers will have to bone up on and work with their clients about.”