The great bill debate


The great bill debate

Federal Government senators on the committee investigating bills on transmission of business and registration of organisations have given ‘overwhelming’ support to the legislation, but their future when the Senate debates them next is unclear due to the Democrats’ desire to consult further on the issues.


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Federal Government senators on the committee investigating bills on transmission of business and registration of organisations have given ‘overwhelming’ support to the legislation, but their future when the Senate debates them next is unclear due to the Democrats’ desire to consult further on the issues.

Workplace Relations Amendment (Transmission of Business) Bill 2001

This Bill would empower the AIRC to exempt or bind a new owner to any previous certified agreements applying to a business, or part of a business, or to vary the conditions of that agreement so they would not necessarily be bound to previous wages and conditions.

Using evidence from the Australian Industry Group submission, the Government members of the Senate’s Standing Committee on Workplace Relations said the current situation could give rise to ‘inconvenient, if not absurd’ circumstances, especially when a previous public sector workplace came into private hands, and the employees were engaged in mixed work.

‘For instance, in a call centre, the company may be required to apply the terms and conditions of the transmitted award for the duration of each call that an employee takes on behalf of the government department, and then apply different awards when the employee tends to other calls,’ the report said.

Other difficulties foreseen by Government senators include:

  • The existing agreement allowing the introduction of a new union into a workplace where it had no prior involvement, and consequent demarcation issues;
  • A reluctance by private sector companies to bid for outsourced public sector work, because of attendant difficulties;
  • An assumption that private sector companies would take uncertainties into account in their bids, thus reducing the cost efficiency of outsourcing for the taxpayer.

The Government senators also said the increasing casualisation of the workforce added complexity to the issue, and that transmitting agreements contradicted the underlying policy of enterprise negotiations. The changes would be modest and replace impractical and costly current provisions, they said. They added that the ACTU’s perspective on workplace relations was ‘unrealistic’ and ideology-driven, rather than ‘real and practical’.

Workplace Relations (Registered Organisations) Bill 2001

This Bill seeks to add to the Workplace Relations Act a new objective, facilitating the registration of a diverse range of organisations. The Government says this is to enable greater choice. At the same time it would remove as an objective encouraging members to participate in their organisation’s affairs – the Government says it is inappropriate for laws to influence individual choice about participation.

It also seeks to widen the grounds for deregistering an organisation, allows for easier union registration and disamalgamation proceedings, attempts to impose upon office holders the statutory duties applicable to directors under the Corporations Law and would increase the scope and powers of the Employment Advocate.

The Government senators rejected union claims the Bill would marginalise unions, and said the ‘machinery’, housekeeping legislation should pass to reflect modernisation and change.

Democrats’ position

Senator Andrew Murray said while he supported the idea that the AIRC should have discretion in respect of transmitted agreements, as it did with awards, he was ‘alert to the complexities and sensitivities surrounding this matter’. As such, he would consult further before deciding on what amendments may or may not be necessary.

As to the Registered Organisations Bill, Murray said he did not intend to oppose it, as the Government had consulted widely and dropped or modified controversial proposals. He acknowledged that having a separate act would do away with 97 years of history, but said opposition to having a separate Act should not be counted as opposition to the contents of the Bill.

Murray said he would consider ‘any amendments that may be necessary in areas of legitimate criticism’. He also said it was a shame the inquiry had not looked into the compliance and costs imposed on employer and employee organisations.

Labor’s position

The two Labor senators, Jacinta Collins and Kim Carr, said the Bills were ‘like their predecessors, partisan and unbalanced’. They said the Government’s proposition that these bills should be passed because they would ease the requirements of the WR Act, placed ‘far too much store in the Government’s credibility in the area of workplace relations’.

‘It ignores elements within both Bills that are unfair to employees, substantively eroding rights, and it glosses over overtly political and pernicious changes that are unjustified, unnecessary and unsupported by an evidence,’ they said.

Labor said the Transmission of Business Bill was partisan because it was designed ‘to overcome an obstacle to the business plans of employers who wish to reduce wages and conditions of employees inherited from businesses they have taken over’.

While there was a prima facie argument that old agreements may not be appropriate to the new workplace, Labor said it did not take into account the need to protect rights of workers who had ‘suffered the wholesale outsourcing of public sector functions without employee protection safeguards’.

They also said the Government’s reasoning that enterprise bargaining had introduced a new and different element was ‘unconvincing and untrue’, with certified agreements resembling ‘the awards of old’ due to award stripping. The senators questioned the Government’s motivation of consistency, saying the Government had previously wanted employers to offer workers covered by Australian Workplace Agreements different conditions despite doing the same work. And AWAs did not come under the aegis of the present Bills.

‘It is inexplicable to us for the Government to treat differently collective industrial instruments compared to individual industrial instruments in a transmission of business context,’ they said. The Labor senators said a consequence would be that AWAs would be made more attractive, as they would be the only means of achieving certainty of entitlements in a transmission context, and this differentiation ‘can only be viewed with suspicion’.

With regard to the Registered Organisations Bill, Labor backed up the unions’ claims those provisions should remain within the Workplace Relations Act, and questioned the Government’s motivations in wanting to separate them. The Bill was not as mechanical as they expected it to be, and no ‘compelling reasons’ had been put forward for why the current system of registration needed improvement.

Both pieces of legislation aimed to undermine collective organisation, they said. They also questioned the Government calling the inquiry before the Registered Organisations Bill had even been tabled in the Senate.

A spokesperson for Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott said he was considering the report, and would take the various recommendations into account when it was debated in the Senate.

The report is on the Committee’s website



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