FWA: a boon for the country or a looming disaster?


FWA: a boon for the country or a looming disaster?

On the eve of the second anniversary of the operation of the Fair Work Act, the ACTU and a major employers’ organisation have produced conflicting reports on how well it is functioning.


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On the eve of the second anniversary of the operation of the Fair Work Act 2009, the ACTU and a major employers’ organisation have produced conflicting reports on how well it is functioning.

The ACTU has today released a report it says debunks the views of the Liberal Party and big business that Australia’s workplace relations system is not working well, and destroys any argument for any return to WorkChoices.

ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrence said the ACTU’s analysis of two years under the Fair Work Act confirms the system that replaced WorkChoices has been good for Australia’s economy, has led to fewer industrial disputes and more people than ever before being covered by collective bargaining.

However, the Australian Mines and Metals Association (AMMA) believes the more entrenched the new laws become the more damage they are inflicting upon workplaces.

AMMA chief executive Steve Knott said the confidence of resource sector employers in the new IR system is in a state of continuous decline.

He said AMMA this week received the third report in an on-going longitudinal study being undertaken by RMIT University into the nation’s workplace laws and their impact on a group of resource sector workplaces employing more than 100,000 of the nation’s workers.

Knott said the report found resource industry employers were also reporting a significant decline in productivity — shifting from over two-thirds of surveyed employers reporting acceptable productivity rates in April 2010 to just 56.7% in the most recent survey, with other survey findings confirming:
  • workplaces are spending more time and resources in meetings and negotiations under the Fair Work Act compared to the Workplace Relations Act for 72% of respondents
  • 11.5% of respondents reported delays in start-up projects due to the non-availability of a non-union greenfield agreement option since the Fair Work Act began
  • a further 34.6% of companies saying it was ‘too soon to tell’ whether projects would be delayed
  • 82.6% of respondents have not been able to negotiate productivity improvements in exchange for wage increases under the Fair Work Act
  • 29.3% of respondents have already experienced flow-on effects to their enterprise, as a result of recent wage and allowance outcomes in the offshore oil and gas industry
  • a further 41.4% said it was ‘too soon to tell’ whether there would be a flow-on effect to their enterprise
  • union demarcation issues have increased at 27.8% of respondent enterprises
  • 16.2% of respondents have received adverse action claims from former employees since the Fair Work Act took effect, while 10.8% have received claims from current employees.
Productivity concerns
Knott said such criticism of the nation’s IR laws by resource industry employers follows similar productivity concerns being raised by other industry sectors in the last few weeks.

‘More and more, rather than approaching the bargaining process as a means of discussing ways of achieving improved workplace productivity employers are finding union bargaining representatives raising issues designed to further the interests of the unions rather than the workers or the workplace,’ Mr Knott said.

‘Over 71% of resource industry employers surveyed have recorded an increase in the number of union-specific clauses being demanded as part of the agreement making process.’

‘Half of survey respondents also recorded trade union officials demanding the inclusion of special trade union training levies.’

‘It is clear AMMA members are becoming increasingly frustrated with the Government’s ‘sit on their hands and do nothing” approach.’

‘There are serious flaws to the FW Act which are now being exposed, yet we have a union movement deliberately playing down their impact and a Government either to scared or too bogged down in other matters to act.’

Good for the economy
The ACTU report, however, claims the FWA has been ‘good for Australia’s economy, has led to less industrial disputes and more people than ever before are covered by collective bargaining’.

‘The reality is the Fair Work Act has restored protection for all workers from unfair dismissal, the rights to collective bargaining, better access and representation from unions in the workplace, a proper safety net, and the abolition of Australian Workplace Agreements,’ Lawrence said.
‘In contrast, WorkChoices placed millions of workers in vulnerable employment, undermined protections, and led to real cuts to the value of minimum wages.’
He said the changes ushered in by the Fair Work Act have restored rights at work for millions of Australian workers and their families. They include:
  • no more Australian Workplace Agreement individual contracts
  • a strong safety net through the National Employment Standards
  • collective bargaining rights, including a requirement to bargain in good faith
  • rights to union membership and representation
  • protection from unfair dismissal
  • a genuine independent umpire to resolve disputes.
However, Lawrence said there were still dangers to fair workplace laws, with business groups wanting to:
  • attack the safety net — getting rid of penalty rates, minimum shift length and leave loading
  • exempt workers in small business from unfair dismissal (last time business got their way, more than 4 million workers lost out)
  • undermine the bargaining system through watering down the obligation to bargain in good faith.
What next?
Lawrence said Australian unions and workers will continue to campaign for improved rights at work, and to lift living standards. In particular, the ACTU believes:
  • construction workers need the same rights as all other workers
  • bargaining should meet the needs of the modern economy and the workers in it
  • recognition needs to be given to the important role of delegates and workplace representatives through positive rights
  • occupational health and safety must be of the highest standard
  • equal pay must be made a reality
  • government can lead the way in ensuring fairness and rights at work through contracting only to service providers who are committed to decent workplace protections.


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