Workers lose as politicians wage 'holy war': McCallum

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Workers lose as politicians wage 'holy war': McCallum

Professor Ron McCallum today told an industrial relations conference that Federal parliament members were intent on destroying each other industrially at the expense of ordinary working Australians.

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Professor Ron McCallum today told an industrial relations conference that Federal parliament members were intent on destroying each other industrially at the expense of ordinary working Australians.

Professor McCallum, who has worked on IR reform in NSW, Queensland and Victoria in recent years, told the NSW IR Society’s annual conference in Bowral there had been too many changes in industrial law, but too little meaningful reform.

And what reform there had been was ‘too prescriptive, doesn’t talk to ordinary employers and employees, and operates to the detriment of good IR and HRM in this country’, McCallum said.

Industrial legislation lacks sense of rights and obligations

In the past 10 years, nearly every state and Federal Government had changed industrial law numerous times, yet only in the Queensland industrial legislation – which spelled out working time and various leave arrangements - was there ‘a sense of rights and obligations’ which ordinary workers could understand.

He said any piece of legislation that failed to spell out individual rights had failed workers. Whereas a worker or employer could pick up the federal Sex Discrimination Act and see clearly and early on that discrimination on the basis of sex, marital status or pregnancy were unlawful, the same could not be said of the federal Workplace Relations Act.

With 709 sections, and eight schedules, it was almost incomprehensible to anyone except ‘lawyers and HR experts’, McCallum said.

He said while society would not normally stand for this pace of change in other laws – for example, it would not tolerate a different ground for divorce with each successive government – it did not complain. This was because the very complexity of industrial laws had disenfranchised ordinary people from feeling they owned them.

McCallum said that with the exception of unfair dismissal law, which employees could test individually in the Industrial Relations Commission, most reform federally had been ‘almost obsessionally’ trade union oriented – dealing with freedom of association, the waterfront dispute and other ‘blokey’ issues.

‘That’s not good enough, we need a more holistic approach,’ he said. ‘In the private sector, trade unions cover only one in five workers. And the Federal parliament itself is not a microcosm of society.’

He said the determination of certain Coalition members and former ACTU figureheads like Bob Hawke, Simon Crean, Martin Ferguson and Jennie George (if she got in at the next election) to ‘wage war’ on each other had given the debate ‘a certain shrillness which I think is mis-focused – the winner wants all the plums’.

Refocus needed to benefit workers

McCallum, who is headed to Canada for six months, said his parting thoughts as Australia prepared for another election were that the coming decade should be a time for sobering up industrially.

‘We must refocus. Like the federal Sex Discrimination Act or Disability Discrimination Act, any labour law worthy of the name should be written so employees are able to pick it up and find out their rights – otherwise it’s failing,’ he said.

He said federally this meant spelling out minimum standards like hours of work, annual leave, public holidays, long-service leave, family leave, and notice on termination. Federal IR Commissioners could then supplement those minimum standards, and awards would still operate ‘to provide much of the meat in the no disadvantage test’.

There is mounting concern in sectors of the IR community over the weakening of awards and the no disadvantage test, which were discussed at a conference earlier this month evaluating 10 years of enterprise bargaining (see previous stories 99/2001, 91/2001 and 90/2001).

‘Not only would having these minimum rights speak to employers and employees, it would refocus bargaining,’ McCallum concluded. ‘Too often, bargaining is only focused on cash for payouts, and that’s not always worked out properly.

‘This could then become the foundation of a robust IR system – and that should be our long-term goal.’

 

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