Rio Tinto wants to move to collective agreement


Rio Tinto wants to move to collective agreement

After years of bitter dispute with unions and workers over the introduction of individual contracts, resources giant Rio Tinto has decided to transfer workers onto a federal collective agreement.


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After years of bitter dispute with unions and workers over the introduction of individual contracts, resources giant Rio Tinto has decided to transfer workers onto a federal collective agreement.

But while unions are hailing the move as a win for collective bargaining, a Rio Tinto source who did not wish to be named said the move has nothing to do with a thaw in the company's relationship with unions, but everything to do with getting out of the Western Australian system. The collective agreement will act only as an umbrella agreement, containing a clause which allows the employees to be governed by their individual contracts, he said.

The Gallop Government's new Labour Relations Reform Bill 2002 introduced into Parliament last month would scrap Western Australian Workplace Agreements and replace them with Employer-Employee Agreements, underpinned by the award. But the Rio Tinto source said the company did not think the EEAs would get up, as the Greens had voiced their opposition to them, and in any case felt they would be too restrictive, with too much WA IRC scrutiny which he said was 'too inefficient'.

The agreement, to be made under s170LK of the federal Workplace Relations Act and struck directly with employees not their unions, would act as an umbrella agreement, covering general conditions, with a clause allowing workers the option of taking the whole agreement as is or continuing their contracts, he said. The source said this could conceivably see 4000 different individual contracts under the umbrella agreement.

'It doesn't mean we're dumping individual contracts,' he said. It did mean, however, that the company could leave the WA system altogether. He said the company has already done such 'umbrella agreement' arrangements at the Comalco aluminium smelter at Bell Bay in Tasmania and Kestrel Coal (formerly the Gordonstone mine) in central Queensland.

He also firmly knocked on the head comments reportedly made by federal Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott that the next step for the company, after it had bedded down the move to the federal system in the s170LK deal, was to move to Australian Workplace Agreements.

'There has been some confusion about why we didn't go to AWAs.' He said. 'We prefer the s170LK deal – we feel it would allow us to replicate exactly what we are already doing. AWAs only apply to those [workers] who agree to them.'

But unions say the company is being disingenuous by painting the move as anything other than a win for the collective. ACTU President Greg Combet was unavailable for comment because he was tied up in meetings for the ACTU executive in Melbourne, but Unions WA secretary Stephanie Mayman told WorkplaceInfo this was an extremely significant first step.

'This company is offering – recognising – for the first time in a number of years the concept of collective bargaining,' she said. 'That is the first step.' After that, she said, there would be provision for employees to examine the agreement, weigh up its merits and vote on it.

While Mayman had not yet seen a copy of the agreement she had seen the letter the company wrote to unions telling them of its decision. And she said she did not see how the agreement could be an umbrella agreement allowing for individual contracts.

'A s170LK agreement is a collective agreement, end of story. To promote it as anything otherwise is disingenuous of the employer. You either have an individual contract or a collective agreement.'

Some 4000 workers in the company's Western Australian workplaces at Hamersley Iron, Robe River, Dampier Salt and Argyle Diamonds, will now vote on the move. It is exactly one year since there was a softening between one section of the company and unions when Hamersley Iron and the Australian Council of Trade Unions reached a confidential settlement over strikes in 1992 over which the company had been seeking tens of millions of dollars in damages.

WorkplaceInfo was unable to get comment from the office of IR Minister John Kobelke, as he is travelling in India and his staff have been unable to reach him. But WA premier Geoff Gallop, speaking on ABC radio in Perth this morning, said the new system was about choice, and it was up to the company and workers to decide what arrangement suited them best.

He rejected claims the move would lead to an 'exodus' from the WA system, saying only 9% of workers were covered by WAWAs.

And while WorkplaceInfo was unable to contact the other big WA resources player, BHP Billiton Iron Ore, it was reported to still be considering its options in the wake of yesterday's announcement.

Unions also last year dropped an appeal they had planned against BHP Iron Ore offering individual contracts for various reasons – including cost and unlikelihood of succeeding, as well as the Gallop Government plans to dispense with WAWAs. The 470 workers who did not have individual contracts last year were granted an enterprise award in the WA IRC, with a 20% pay rise and a 6% increase in superannuation to narrow the gap between them and workers on WAWAs.

BHP Iron ore had only started its policy of offering individual contracts after merger talks with Hamersley failed because it was lagging on productivity.

The move comes as Australia's steel industry was reeling in the wake of US President George Bush's announcement that he plans to place a 30% tariff on steel imports. Australia exports roughly $450 million worth of steel to the US, and jobs at BHP Billiton's Port Kembla steelworks are now under threat.


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