No strikes if life or economy endangered, say new IR laws - Second Reading summarised

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No strikes if life or economy endangered, say new IR laws - Second Reading summarised

The Federal Government will be able to terminate industrial action where it threatens life, personal safety, health or welfare of the population, or is likely to cause significant damage to the economy, under the new IR laws introduced to Parliament today.

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The Federal Government will be able to terminate industrial action where it threatens life, personal safety, health or welfare of the population, or is likely to cause significant damage to the economy, under the new IR laws introduced to Parliament today. 

If rigorously applied, this provision would have serious industrial ramifications for workers in areas such as hospitals, mining, oil production, petrol, manufacturing, police forces and schools. 

In his Second Reading speech, Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews said the new legislations ‘accommodates the demand for choice and flexibility in our workplaces’. 

‘A central objective of this Bill is to encourage the further spread of workplace agreements in order to lift productivity and hence the living standards of working Australians,’ he said. 

The Minister listed key areas of the Bill. These key areas are summarised below. 

Single national system

While employers and employees covered by WorkChoices will not be subject to regulation by state employment laws, state laws will continue to cover such matters as occupational health and safety, workers compensation, trading hours and public holidays. 

Transitional arrangements

Current state agreements applying to employers entering the new system from the state systems will continue to apply as transitional agreements. State awards applying to employers entering the new system will be preserved as transitional agreements for three years.   

Employers currently in the federal system who, for constitutional reasons, cannot be covered by WorkChoices in the longer term, will have a transitional period of five years during which current agreements and awards can continue to operate. 

Australian Industrial Relations Commission 

The AIRC will focus on its key responsibility – dispute resolution.  In addition, the AIRC will have a role to further simplify and rationalise awards, as well as regulating industrial action, right of entry, unfair dismissal and registered organisations. 

Under the new system the AIRC will no longer exercise compulsory powers of conciliation and arbitration, but instead will provide voluntary dispute resolution services with limited exceptions (such as terminating a bargaining period where industrial action is threatening life or causing damage to the economy or under new essential services provisions). 

Workplace agreements

In addition to AWAs, there will be provision for collective agreements negotiated directly between employers and their employees and between employers and unions that represent employees in a workplace. There will also be provision for collective agreements in which persons other than unions can be employee representatives.   

WorkChoices will provide agreement making options where an employer is establishing or proposing to establish a new business in areas such as the economically important resources and construction sectors.    

As well as existing greenfields agreements between employers and unions, WorkChoices will introduce greenfields agreements that do not require the involvement of a union.

Protection of key award conditions in bargaining

Award-based conditions such as public holidays, rest breaks (including meal breaks), incentive-based payments and bonuses, annual leave loadings, allowances, penalty rates and shift/overtime loadings will be deemed to be part of an agreement ‘unless it specifically modifies or excludes them’.  

To change or remove these conditions in a workplace agreement the agreement must address these matters. The agreement will need to identify the particular award conditions that are being changed or removed.  In this way these conditions will be protected, unless employers and employees agree to vary them.  

Content of agreements 

All new agreements will need to meet the Fair Pay and Conditions Standard, include a nominal expiry date (up to a maximum of five years) and a dispute settling procedure. 

Reforming dismissal laws

Workplaces with fewer than 100 employees will no longer have access to unfair dismissal laws. In businesses with more than 100 employees, an employee must have worked for six months before unfair dismissal can be accessed. 

In addition, no claims can be brought where the employment has been terminated because the employer genuinely no longer requires the job to be done.  

Industrial action

The right to take protected industrial action will be maintained, however changes to remedies for unprotected action have been made. 

These include requiring the AIRC to provide a remedy for unprotected industrial action within 48 hours and removing impediments to access to common law tort remedies for unprotected industrial action. 

A secret ballot will be required before protected industrial action can be taken. This will ensure that protected action is not taken unless the employees involved genuinely wish to take this serious step. WorkChoices will also make it clear that industrial action is prohibited during the life of an agreement.   

New provisions will be introduced similar to those in state essential services legislation. These new provisions will allow a declaration to be issued by the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations where protected industrial action threatens life, personal safety, health or welfare of the population or is likely to cause significant damage to the economy.   

Third parties directly affected by protected action will be able to seek a suspension of the bargaining period. 

Freedom of association and right of entry 

Right of entry can only be exercised under the new legislation and the circumstances under which it can be exercised will be clarified and the remedies for abuse strengthened.  

The right of entry provisions will still allow a union permit holder entry for OHS purposes under state legislation where the union official has a federal right of entry permit and has complied with all requirements of the relevant state OHS legislation. 

Registered organisations

State registered organisations will be able to apply to the Industrial Registrar for transitional status as a registered federal organisation provided they meet certain minimum requirements.  They will then have three years to meet the full requirements of the Workplace Relations Act.  The ‘conveniently belong’ rule will not apply to the registration of state registered organisations that are transferred into the federal system. 

Young people

When negotiating individual agreements, young people will be protected by the requirement that an appropriate adult sign the agreement.   

As well, when setting wages for juniors, the Fair Pay Commission will be obliged by legislation to take into account the need to secure their competitiveness in the labour market.

WorkChoices will also increase opportunities for school-based and part-time apprenticeships and traineeships by removing industrial relations barriers by filling current gaps in award coverage for part-time and school-based apprenticeships and traineeships, according to the Minister. 

Work and family issues

Award-reliant employees will not lose current entitlements to family-friendly working arrangements and will continue to receive any penalty rates, loadings for overtime or shiftwork, allowances, incentive-based payments and bonuses that they are currently entitled to under their award. 

Related 

Federal IR changes 2005

 

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