NSW, federal IR issues overlap: panel

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NSW, federal IR issues overlap: panel

Unfair dismissal reform, the possibility of a unitary IR system and casualisation were among the top issues nominated yesterday by NSW employer, union and departmental representatives as being of concern to industrial players.

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Unfair dismissal reform, the possibility of a unitary IR system and casualisation were among the top issues nominated yesterday by NSW employer, union and departmental representatives as being of concern to industrial players.

But while all three parties speaking to delegates at an acirrt industrial relations outlook conference in Sydney yesterday outlined roughly the same concerns, they assigned them different meanings and degrees of importance.

The employers' viewpoint

The manager of workplace policy at Australian Business Industrial, Dick Grozier, told the delegates ABI considered the form of unfair dismissal legislation 'unfinished business', and said employers had 'no great faith' in the balance of the system.

Acknowledging that this applied to both the state and federal sphere, Grozier said matters were complicated by the fact that each system had different processes, exemptions and likely outcomes, so neither employers nor employees had certainty.

Employers also felt they bore a cost imbalance, given that an applicant could make a claim to avoid costs while employers faced 'fairly significant' costs of defence, he said, giving rise to a situation where 95% of cases both in NSW and federally were settled.

Equally, dual regulation in other areas caused confusion, with employers facing different requirements vis-à-vis payslip information, record keeping, union right of entry and parental leave, depending on which jurisdiction they were in, Grozier said. All of which added to employers' call for a single national system of regulation.

The unions

The number one issue for workers was job security according to the secretary of the Labor Council of NSW, John Robertson. Unfair dismissal legislation was 'one of the most poorly understood and misrepresented' provisions both federally and state-wise, he said, and consequently caused 'a real fear'.

'But at its heart it's about people being treated fairly and decently, and if you've done that and your processes are clear, you have nothing to fear,' he told delegates.

He noted that it was ironic that Federal Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott was 'running around... using this fear for small business', when most small businesses were state-covered.

Referring to Abbott's introduction of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Termination of Employment) Bill 2002, which seeks to exclude states from the dismissal jurisdiction by using the corporations power available under the Constitution (see 364/2002), Robertson said that power 'still leaves a lot out' and that the new Bill 'just reinforces the fear bogeyman'.

Like Grozier, who said ABI recognised the need for the Carr Government's new Bill aimed at controlling freelance agents who took dismissal cases on a contingency basis (see 378/2002), Robertson said he had seen unfair dismissal 'become a bit like the Lotto factor, particularly with an agent - fire in an application and see what you get'.

The new Bill would stop dismissals becoming a 'cash cow', he said, and result in more fairness for employers as well as workers.

Other perennial issues for the labour movement included regulation of the labour hire industry, levels of casualisation and contracting out. The Labor Council has recently reached a memorandum of understanding with the Local Government Association on compliance with awards and related issues like workers compensation and superannuation.

Finally, entitlements. While Robertson said unions did not have a firm view as to what should replace the current government scheme, it was clear that 100% of entitlements needed to be protected in case of company collapse. Moves like the Transport Workers' Union's attempt to protect all entitlements through the state award were just one example of what could be done, he said.

The departmental view

Finally, NSW Department of Industrial Relations deputy director-general (workplace services division) Pat Manser expressed concerns about whether the continual IR legislative change around the country actually had an impact at the workplace.

She highlighted protection of worker entitlements in the case of company collapses and work-life balance as two of the top priorities, saying it was 'astonishing' the latter had not been resolved as 'it ought to be pretty fundamental'.

Like Robertson, Manser felt contracting out, casualisation and fixed-term employment were issues facing change, saying while NSW had a history of 'pulling people back' into the employment relationship, via deeming provisions for example, 'I suspect that won't last very much longer'.

She criticised the current emphasis in the federal sphere on union activities and limiting union power, saying this 'seems to ignore the real issue - getting on with business'.

Comparing NSW's current level of days lost to industrial dispute per thousand employees - the lowest since records started 20 years ago and well below the national average - with the Victorian example, showed how destructive it was to be in an adversarial environment, Manser said.

Like Robertson, she had concerns about the Federal Government's new dismissal bill, particularly as Abbott had 'intended' his 'ambush' by not mentioning it in a meeting only days before with all state ministers, thus showing he did not value the notion of open collaboration, she said. Indeed, his second reading speech had indicated his hopes for the state jurisdictions to 'wither away'.

Manser said 15% to 20% of workers would still not be covered, and apart from meaning 'the legislation will never be truly unitary or truly inclusive', this could lead to a wider-scale version of the situation in Victoria, where hundreds of thousands of workers not covered by federal awards or agreements were working for wages and conditions vastly inferior to their counterparts throughout the country.

Finishing on a sober note, she advised delegates not to forget the notion of 'competitive federalism', the effect of progressing things along via small stages. Moves like the Australian Industrial Relations Commission's recent reference to the NSW IRC's equal remuneration principle would be lost if the Bill succeeded, she said.

'You have to ask yourself if what we're looking at is a bureaucratic attempt to tidy up - which I'm always very, very wary of - or an ideological battle, and I suspect it's the latter.'

 
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