Workplace reforms proposed

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Workplace reforms proposed

Minister Reith has released a discussion paper concerning the implementation of the industrial relations policy the Coalition took into the last federal election.

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Minister Reith has released a discussion paper concerning the implementation of the industrial relations policy the Coalition took into the last federal election. The discussion paper outlines a range of reforms to be introduced by the Government to further reform the current industrial relations system.

Three Bills have already been introduced to implement three specific commitments contained in the Coalition's election policy. These are:

  • the unfair dismissal small business exemption and six month qualifying period Bill (the Bill is yet to be formally rejected by the Senate although this is likely);
  • a Bill to include in the objects of the Workplace Relations Act 1996the promotion of youth employment and to provide for the continued availability of junior wage rates in awards and agreements (this Bill has been rejected by the Senate but the Government intends to reintroduce it); and
  • to remove superannuation from the list of allowable matters.

Compliance and industrial action

The two biggest changes in the area of compliance and industrial action are the requirement for a pre-strike ballot to be held prior to the taking of industrial action and a number of amendments aimed at giving employers stronger and more effective remedies against unprotected industrial action.

The following are the changes proposed to the procedures for initiating protected industrial action

  • A secret pre-strike ballot will be required with a quorum of 50% eligible votes and a majority of the voters.
  • The AIRC will oversee the process and an application for a ballot will have to be made that sets out the information that must be provided to voters.
  • The AIRC will also have to be satisfied that among other things the parties have been genuinely bargaining before it orders a ballot.
  • The costs of the ballot will be reimbursed by the Commonwealth (up to 80% of the cost).
  • The notice period for taking protected industrial action will be extended to five days.
  • Protected action will not be available in the negotiation of AWAs.
  • There will be provision for the Commission to suspend bargaining periods for cooling off periods.

Termination of employment

The $50 filing fee was reintroduced on 17 March 1999 and the Government is considering raising it to $100. If the Senate rejects the unfair dismissal amendment Bill the Government will reintroduce it.

Further changes to ease the burden on small business created by the present laws include:

  • greater rigour in the processing of unfair dismissal applications.
  • tightening the grounds upon which late applications will be accepted.
  • limiting the circumstances in which a resignation can be regarded as a constructive dismissal.
  • broadening the circumstances in which costs may be awarded against applicants or their advisors.
  • requiring the AIRC to issue certificates after conciliation with arbitration being prohibited if a negative assessment is given.
  • clarifying the definition of casuals to ensure that only long term casuals have access to the system.

Agreement making

The main thrust of the proposed reforms is to simplify the procedures leading to Certified Agreements and Australian Workplace Agreements. The basic requirements for making an AWA will be consolidated into one section in the Actto make it easier to understand. Other proposed changes for AWAs include:

  • removing the requirement for employers to offer identical AWAs to comparable employees;
  • removing the requirement for the EA to refer AWAs to the AIRC where the EA has doubts about the AWAs meeting the no disadvantage test ("NDT"); and
  • providing for fast-tracking of AWAs that provide rates of remuneration in excess of $68,000.

Proposed changes for certified agreements are:

  • streamlining the approval and variation requirements and procedures;
  • allowing CAs to be approved without formal hearings and fast-tracking procedures;
  • removing provisions currently placing limitations on agreements which apply to a single business;
  • not allowing unions party to CAs to block their extension or variation; and
  • strengthening existing protection for workers against coercion, victimisation, duress and harassment.

The role of the AIRC and registered organisations

The AIRC will be renamed the Australian Workplace Relations Commission and the Registry will be renamed the Workplace Relations Registry. Other changes include:

  • benchmarking with other registries and increased responsibility for the President and Registrar with regard to the reporting of the Commission's performance and efficiency;
  • introduction of contemporary management practices;
  • ensuring the Commission's procedures are more timely and simpler, as well as easier for regional clients, small business and self-represented employees to use;
  • further harmonising the provision of services by the AWRC and State industrial tribunals; and
  • removing barriers to greater use of voluntary conciliation with the Commission being able to charge for the services.

Amendments relating to registered organisations envisage the relevant sections of the the WRAbeing taken out of the WRAand put into a separate Act. The new Act would make changes to the regulation of registered organisations to make them more accountable to their members particularly in relation to financial matters and to simplify the requirements for enterprise unions. Additionally, the registration and deregistration process will be streamlined.

Conclusion

The discussion paper also contains proposals to make changes to provisions relating to awards, mediation, freedom of association and youth wages. While the reforms represent a streamlining of present practices and shy away from radical changes, Minister Reith has indicated in recent speeches an intention to stimulate debate about more fundamental reform. These more fundamental reforms are not yet adopted Government policy

 
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