Employers use AWAs for 'hard' HRM ends: report

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Employers use AWAs for 'hard' HRM ends: report

Despite claims by the federal Government and Employment Advocate that Australian Workplace Agreements offer workers more flexibility, their main aim is focused on maximising hours and minimising costs, with many employers also using them to undermine unionism, a new study has found.

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Despite claims by the federal Government and Employment Advocate that Australian Workplace Agreements offer workers more flexibility, their main aim is focused on maximising hours and minimising costs, with many employers also using them to undermine unionism, a new study has found.

The latest issue of the Journal of Industrial Relations carries an article written by a team from the University of Queensland's school of management, entitled 'Australian Workplace Agreements in practice: the hard and soft dimensions'.

It finds that despite the rhetoric, AWA provisions based around the developmental and personal needs of employees are relatively uncommon and 'where they occur. . . relatively brief'. These findings will have significance for future employment conditions in an increasingly deregulated labour market, the report warns.

The authors examined 539 AWAs approved between March 1997 and June 1998 - each of which is the first AWA signed by the employer. The sample is based on a population of 22,471 AWAs approved in that period, and was provided by the OEA. They did this to overcome a number of problems, including lack of agreement as to what should be measured, the unit of analysis (worker, employer or agreement); and confusion about previous databases.

Evidence of hard HRM

The report briefly refers to previous studies which outline the 'hard' HRM agenda behind AWAs, carried out by ACIRRT and the Queensland Department of Employment, Training and Industrial Relations.

Both reports conclude that Queensland Workplace Agreements - the state equivalent of the federal agreements - have been disadvantageous to workers, and that 'at best there have been no significant improvements' in their conditions under the agreements. Some 38.7% increased ordinary weekly hours, 53% increased the span of hours, 69.4% removed or cut penalty rate entitlements and 42.5% removed overtime.

The report says it is apparent that 'the focus of QWAs is on repackaging award entitlements to suit the needs of employers, rather than introducing genuinely innovative changes to the workplace'.

Interpreting data on how far-reaching the soft HRM agenda had been in AWAs was difficult because of a lack of agreement as to what should be measured, the authors concluded. While the Office of the Employment Advocate says measures of 'family-friendly' clauses include flexible hours, for example, ACIRRT's ADAM report says issues like averaging of hours, 'flexible' start and finish times and 'negotiable' hours of work 'are usually detrimental to workers' interests'.

Another problem is the unit of analysis - some reports use the worker, others measure via the agreement or employer. The study says some analyses are potentially biased because of large employers signing multiple agreements with the same wording.

The research

For their own sample of 539 AWAs, the authors identified 15 provisions indicative of soft HRM: training, career path, personal review, anti-discrimination, equal employment opportunity, occupational health and safety, child care, parental leave, family leave, compassionate leave, flexi-time, consultation, dispute resolution, part-time work, and sick leave.

The AWAs were measured for both the presence of these provisions, and the 'depth', ranging from no content in the AWA to a page or more. While 26.5% of the AWAs (143) contained none of these provisions, only one agreement contained 11. The range of soft HRM provisions was narrow - two-thirds of the AWAs had four or fewer provisions, and only 11.5% had seven or more.

Dispute resolution (59.9%) and anti-discrimination provisions (53.6%) were the most common, but these two clauses were required by the Workplace Relations Act. Despite this legislative requirement, the OEA still certified between 40% and 46% of agreements which did not contain this clause.

Apart from those provisions, sick leave was the most common (43%), followed by parental leave (31%) and training (29.7%). The other provisions appeared in less than a quarter of AWAs, with career paths, performance review, consultation, child care, EEO and flex-time all appearing in less than 4% of AWAs.

The soft HRM provisions were mainly lacking in detail, generally not elaborating beyond a few paragraphs. While the authors say this is sometimes because the content could be summarised simply and briefly, in other cases 'only the most cursory attention [had been paid] to these important workplace HRM issues'.

The authors point out that they did not compare AWA provisions with the relevant awards, which they said clearly limited their ability to make judgements about whether AWAs gave superior or inferior outcomes. However, they were able to conclude that

  • 'Quite drastic changes' - for example, a set weekly wage regardless of hours actually worked - had been made in one-page documents;
  • The wording of AWAs allows for a variety of interpretations of employee rights and obligations. For example, clauses range from a general statement such as 'the employer will provide training where necessary' to directives like 'employee must participate in training as directed'.
  • The dichotomy between soft and hard HRM could be seen in an agreement which on the one hand provided for 38 hours' paid leave a year to be deducted from a worker's sick leave by arrangement, while on the other hand warning that 'a critical requirement' for the organisation's success was that the employee work the fluctuating hours that the organisation's needs dictated.

Conclusions

The authors say their findings, which weight all employers equally, argue against the Business Council of Australia's long-held belief that in a deregulated labour market, without 'obstacles' like awards and unions, employers and workers will be able to reach mutually-beneficial agreements.

Instead, they say, their research shows 'the tendency for employers, free from the 'fetters' of trade union/third party intervention and the potential for public investigation, is not to seek out agreements that benefit the interests of both industrial parties'.

'The available evidence on AWAs in practice indicates the implementation of a wage-minimising, labour intensification logic,' the report says. It says many employers use AWAs to undermine unionism and formalise long-standing informal arrangements, and concludes that 'trade unionism and the maintenance of awards are essential for the protection of workers' industrial conditions'.

 
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