Business praises new IR approach
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Australia’s two largest business groups were remarkably upbeat as they responded to the Rudd Government’s release of proposed new workplace laws.
Despite having known qualms about sections of Labor’s Fair Work Bill that could force their employer members to let unions through the door after an absence of many years, they praised the changes as a workable compromise.
The sanguine response from the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and its longtime rival, the Australian Industry Group, reflects a deliberate strategy of Workplace Minister Julia Gillard to include employers in extensive consultations over the past 12 months.
After the experience of the Coalition’s 2006 Work Choices laws, a one-sided affair involving detailed interaction with employers and a deaf ear for unions, Ms Gillard was determined to make employers feel they were part of the process.
She briefed ACCI chief executive Peter Anderson and AIG chief executive Heather Ridout as the legislation was drafted, and signed their representatives on a government consultation committee to strict confidentiality agreements that prevented them from going public about what they knew.
While these employer groups stood by their undertakings to stay silent, Ms Gillard was free to release detail of the pending legislation as she pleased. In several key speeches, the minister elaborated on concessions, made as a result of negotiations with both employers and unions, that went beyond what Labor had offered at last year’s election.
Most of these concessions, including one to allow arbitration of wage claims for groups of low-paid workers and for all workers when employers persistently refuse to co-operate in bargaining, went the unions’ way.
Only two employer groups yesterday demonstrated they had contempt for Labor’s laws and the political process. Both were also involved in consultations but have special interests that make them different from the mainstream employer groups.
Steve Knott, chief executive of the Australian Mines and Metals Association, had no compunction in blasting Labor’s laws as a return to the "1993 Keating era" because of the scope for unions to return to non-union mines where high-paid workers have long since ceased being members.
“These new unions’ rights will shift the focus from productivity and job creation to fending off disruptive union membership turf wars and dealing with red tape associated with union requests for information,” Mr Knott said.
Bill Healey, chief executive of the Australian Hotels Association, was upset that a special low-paid bargaining stream for workers in industries such as his own could force his hoteliers into arbitrated wage settlements paying above minimum wage rates.
Mr Healey said the AHA did not accept the powers of Labor’s new industrial umpire, Fair Work Australia, to intervene. Master Builders Australia chief executive Wilhelm Harnisch said giving unions greater power increased the chances of industrial disruption.
Mr Anderson was bold enough to say publicly that Labor’s alternative to Work Choices would "put more power in the hands of union officials”. He issued a list of concerns, including his fear that pay rises could be won irrespective of productivity and the state of the economy. But Mr Anderson said he recognised the “reality” that Labor had received endorsement at the election for most of its changes.
Ms Ridout also took a similarly pragmatic position. She congratulated Ms Gillard “on a very good process” and said the Fair Work Bill was “by and large” workable. “I think employers cannot have everything they want out of this bill. The Government has listened hard to employers, they’ve mitigated a lot of the big risks around content of agreements,” Ms Ridout said.
“Unions will need to be responsible in their use of the new laws or risk causing economic damage at the worst time for Australia when pressures on business and on employment are intense,” she added..
In rewriting the nation’s industrial relations laws from scratch, Ms Gillard’s legislation goes much further than Labor promised at the election by allowing union entry to worksites provided people perform work on the premises and are entitled to be represented by the union concerned.
Dismissing claims from some employers that Labor’s bargaining regime was too heavily weighted in support of unions, Ms Gillard insisted that “at the end of the day it is up to a majority in a workplace”.
The Workplace Relations Minister said unions should have a right to enter worksites based on having members, or eligible members. But union officials would still be required to gain an entry permit and give employers 24 hours’ notice. Unions also could not legally disrupt work, meeting for "discussions” during breaks and at a venue chosen by the employer.
The package, which demolishes John Howard’s Work Choices laws, introduced in 2006, also relaxes rules on outlawing strike pay, allows employer lockouts only in response to strike action and gives the Workplace Minister considerable powers to terminate industrial action or give directions in bargaining disputes.
Secret ballots before legally protected strike action will also require only 26 per cent support to gain approval because only half of eligible employees at a worksite will be required to take part in the ballot.
The ACCI accepted the "reality” that voters had endorsed IR change at the election. Mr Anderson said that new rights and compliance measures could add costs for employers, including non-unionised sites and among small businesses.
Mr Anderson said he was concerned that new arbitration powers proposed for Labor’s umpire, Fair Work Australia, would lead to pay rises spreading to low paid and other workers without regard for productivity or economic circumstances.
A significant concern for Mr Anderson is that – despite Ms Gillard’s denials – special bargaining provisions allowed for the low paid and “single interest employers” could lead to pattern bargaining of wage claims across entire industries.
Unfair dismissal rights are to be restored for all workers, but small business is given the concession of a 12-month probation period for employees before claims can be made. For other firms, the no-claims period is to be six months. Work Choices effectively eliminated most unfair dismissal claims by abolishing them for any business with fewer than 100 staff.