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Who has the fairest IR policy?


Who has the fairest IR policy?Fairness is in the air. The Australian Labor Party’s National Conference, held in April, endorsed a new industrial relations policy — Forward with Fairness — the centrepiece of which is the abolition of Australian Workplace Agreements.

Having denied for months that it had an alternative plan for Industrial Relations and soon after Joe Hockey declared that the Government’s policy was set, the Prime Minister revealed a new Fairness Test in early May .

The Government also dropped the WorkChoices name, effectively admitting that its $55 million advertising campaign had failed. However, the new test addresses just one aspect of the 2006 legislation: compensation for the loss of award conditions previously said to be protected by law.

In fact and in law, these special award conditions could be — and were — lost by employees at the stroke of a pen when they were asked or required as a condition of employment to sign an individual contract modifying or removing these conditions.

The Federal Government’s Bill provided that new agreements should compensate employees for any loss of these particular award conditions, such as overtime, but the compensation is limited, and subject to various 'let out' clauses.

Although the ALP announced support for the Bill in Parliament, it declared that it did not go far enough and moved a number of amendments in the House of Representatives and the Senate. These included  seeking to protect the right of employees not to work on special holy days, Christmas Day and Good Friday, which the Government rejected in both Houses.

In the now familiar manner, the Bill went to a Senate Committee for a review which left interested parties and the Committee itself little time to consider its ramifications.

The Committee reported along predictable party lines: Government Senators supported the Bill, subject to a few technical amendments, while ALP, Democrats, Greens and Family First Senators excoriated the proposed legislation.

Who has the fairest IR policy?The Senate passed only the Government’s own largely technical amendments. It  compromised with Family First’s extension on the protection of redundancy entitlement from 12 months to two years, but refused to make redundancy a protected award matter subject to the Fairness Test itself. Employees can thus lose this right at any time by being required to sign an agreement excluding it.

The legislation has serious flaws. It offers compensation for the loss of only some award conditions — the 'protected' ones. It does not compensate for the loss of unfair dismissal rights, redundancy pay or long service leave amongst other important entitlements.

Australia’s largest employer group, ACCI, opposed the introduction of the Fairness Test as an unnecessary burden on employers. They may have a point, since the test is applied by a Government agency after the agreement is made. If it fails, the employer must retrospectively reimburse the employee for the value of lost conditions.

Administratively, the operation of the test is extraordinary: the Government is hiring another 570 staff to vet around 400,000 agreements each year at an additional cost of $370 million. Added to the costs already present in the Government’s 'simpler' system, it amounts to a deregulated system that costs a small fortune to run — the Pacific Solution applied to industrial relations!

The Coalition came to power supporting smaller Government and privatisation but has now 'in-sourced' at huge cost many functions previously performed by unions and employer associations at little cost to the taxpayer.

The only Church body to make a submission to the Senate inquiry was the Sydney Anglican Church. The Church expressed a range of concerns. However, even with the new Test, WorkChoices Mark II still fails any fairness test based on Christian social teaching.

Since individual agreements remain the cornerstone of the Government’s laws – and these can still be forced on new employees as a condition of employment – the fundamental right of employees to bargain collectively and be represented by their union remains absent.

As Parramatta’s Bishop Manning said:

"The right of workers to act collectively is central to Catholic Social Teaching. It was stated explicitly in the great encyclical Rerum Novarum. The great injustice of the WorkChoices legislation is that it obliterates the principal instrument of collective action which is collective bargaining. Let us be very clear about this: there is no right to collective bargaining under the legislation. Any collective bargaining that may take place is entirely at the whim of the employer. This is manifestly unjust!"

The Government’s new laws require employees to be given Fact Sheets explaining their rights under the new legislation. Early indications are that employees are not buying the Government’s pre-election change of heart.



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Existing comments

wouldn't it be great if our Cardinal Pell turned his mind from sex and reproduction for once and acknowledged other Catholic teaching like Bishop Manning has.

tony white | 28 June 2007  

It is good to see an article about the new Fairness Test given the disparity between the Church's teachings on this subject and current IR legislation in Australia. Catholic beliefs about social justice in the workplace, and the rights of workers, deserve more discussion in our profit driven society.

Mary Lambert | 29 June 2007  

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