Agreement-making a priority in safety net bill

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Agreement-making a priority in safety net bill

Federal Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott introduced two new bills to Parliament today – aimed at strengthening sanctions against union officials who refuse to comply with court and tribunal orders and changing the way the minimum wage is decided.

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Federal Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott introduced two new bills to Parliament today – aimed at strengthening sanctions against union officials who refuse to comply with court and tribunal orders and changing the way the minimum wage is decided.
 
In his second reading speech this morning, Abbott said the intent of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Protection of the Low-Paid) Bill was to ensure that low-paid workers kept their jobs, while maintaining the focus on agreement making for other workers.
 
That Bill would amend s88 of the Workplace Relations Act to require the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to consider the following in the annual minimum wage case:
  • Primarily, the needs of the low paid, including their need for employment;
  • The employment prospects of the unemployed; and
  • The capacity of employers to meet increased labour costs.
The federal workplace relations system was now firmly focused upon the setting of wages and conditions of employment at the enterprise level and this gave employers and employees the opportunity to increase the productivity and competitiveness of Australian enterprises, Abbott said.
 
‘This in turn ensures a stronger and more resilient economy with healthier employment prospects. In this way, agreement making at the workplace level offers rewards for employees, employers and for Australia as a nation.’
 
He emphasised that a key part of the principal object of the Act was that actual wages should, as far as possible, be determined by bargaining at the workplace or enterprise level, to encourage agreement making and to meet overall economic objectives.
 
Abbott added that AIRC decisions on the adjustment of rates of pay in awards needed to be consistent with and reinforce the safety net role of awards to ensure genuine safety net standards.
 
But he said that while unemployment had fallen from the highs of the early 1990s and Australia was weathering the economic effects of international uncertainty, many people still found it difficult to gain employment, and the Bill would help address that issue.
 
The Federal Opposition and the Australian Council of Trade Unions both blasted the minimum wage legislation today, coinciding as it did with news that the Commonwealth Bank paid a $33m golden handshake to former executive Chris Cuffe.
 
Shadow IR Minister Robert McClelland said in a statement an Australian on the minimum wage would take 1500 years to earn that amount. This year’s minimum wage case, in which the ACTU is seeking a $24.60 a week wage rise, to take the minimum wage to $456 a week or $12 an hour, is due to start on 31 March.
 
Sanctions for breaching court orders
 
The second Bill, the Workplace Relations Amendment (Compliance with Court and Tribunal Orders) Bill, was first mooted late last year. In his second reading speech today Abbott reiterated that he wanted to stop the ‘blatant disregard’ of some Federal Court and AIRC orders, particularly in relation to stopping industrial action.
 
‘Failure to punish law breakers encourages law breaking,’ he said. ‘If such behaviour goes unpunished then it is likely to be repeated.’
 
He said while non-compliance was concentrated among unions and their representatives, the Bill would apply equally to officers or employers of employer organisations.
 
Under the Bill, if officers and employees of registered organisations failed to comply with orders and directions of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission and the Federal Court, the Minister could seek orders from the Federal Court that financial penalties be imposed.
 
Those who were fined for failure to comply would generally be disqualified from holding office in registered organisations although there would be some flexibility, with those in breach able to apply to the Federal Court for leave to hold office.
 
For the purposes of exercising this power the Court would have to consider a number of matters, including the circumstances of the contravention and the nature of the person’s involvement in the contravention.
 
The Bill would also safeguard an organisation from financial damage suffered as a result of an officer or employee of that organisation contravening their duties, where the Court was satisfied that the organisation took reasonable steps to prevent the contravention.
 
Abbott added that ‘in appropriate cases’ the Government would refer cases of failure to comply with return to work orders of the Commission to the Director of Public Prosecutions for prosecution for contempt of the Commission.
 
He said he would later be introducing legislation to codify s299 of the Workplace Relations Act so that all conduct that amounts to ‘contempt of the Commission’ was expressly identified. These amendments would also bring the maximum penalties into line with Commonwealth policy for offences of this kind.
 
Federal genuine bargaining amendment now law
 
The Workplace Relations Amendment (Genuine Bargaining) Act 2002 was proclaimed to commence on 7 February, 2003.
 
This legislation is designed to reduce pattern bargaining with a view to promoting genuine bargaining as opposed to a uniform agreement across an industry.
 
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