Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Labor’s new IR bill: another fat slice for big business

By Margarita Windisch
From Green Left Weekly, 29 March 2008

Federal parliament passed the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness Bill) on March 19. The bill — which the corporate media falsely claims has brought an end to Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) — became law on March 28.

On February 13, the day the bill was introduced into parliament, Australian Mines and Metals Association chief executive Steve Knott praised PM Kevin Rudd’s government for not succumbing to "the demands of some unions to make more radical changes".

The resource industry, one of the biggest users of AWAs, along with the hospitality sector, is especially pleased with a key new amendment to the bill that broadened employers’ scope to use Interim Transitional Employment Agreements (ITEAs). In a major concession, mining bosses won the right to offer ITEAs to rehired workers who had previously worked for the same employer on an AWA.

Before the new amendment, the proposed bill stipulated that only workers who were currently employed under an AWA could be moved onto an ITEA.

Since Labor’s November election victory, the IR bill was hailed as the beginning of the end of former PM John Howard’s Work Choices legislation and the hated AWAs, allegedly sending Howard’s regressive anti-worker laws into the dustbin of history.

However Labor’s intention was never to change Australian industrial relations in favour of workers, but to reshape Howard’s notorious Work Choices into a new system that maintains the spirit of deregulation of the labour market and provides the utmost flexibility for bosses.

Contrary to government rhetoric and popular belief, the new bill always contained provisions that allowed statutory individual contracts (AWAs) to continue indefinitely under Labor’s new industrial relations regime.

According to Adelaide University law professor Andrew Stewart, quoted in Workplace Express on March 20, amendments to the bill also failed to close a loophole that may mean workers could lose their long-service leave entitlements without getting compensation. He said, "if the workplace agreement does deal with long service leave, regardless of what it says about it, a state or territory long service leave statute cannot count as a reference instrument. It will thus be disregarded for the purpose of the no disadvantage test. In such a case, a new agreement could validly take away long service leave rights without any need for some compensating benefit."

The current bill also fails to restore unfair dismissal provisions, leaving workers without protection. Under Work Choices, a business with more than 100 employees can lawfully use "genuine operational reasons" to sack workers and rehire new staff for less money and worse conditions. Work Choices also took away workers’ rights to challenge unfair dismissal if their workplace employed less than 100 people.

The federal government has ruled out reintroducing unfair dismissal laws until January 2010.

On a more positive note, two amendments were passed regarding outworkers (home-based textile workers), taking into account a very strong submission to the Senate committee by the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia. Michele O’Neil, Victorian TCFUA secretary, told Green left Weekly that the amended bill now provides for outworkers’ award conditions to be protected even if the workers are on a workplace agreement with less favourable terms. She said the bill also enshrines outworker provisions protection under Labor’s proposed award modernisation process.

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