September 2001: the month in IR

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September 2001: the month in IR

With an election in the offing, there was really only one subject on industrial players lips this month – entitlements, and the collapse of Ansett.

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With an election in the offing, there was really only one subject on industrial players lips this month – entitlements, and the collapse of Ansett. Also in the election run-up, the Government was accused of stacking the AIRC with only one of six new appointees having a union background.

Ansett entitlements
 
One of the Government's last moves before it passed into election mode was to pass legislation guaranteeing the payment of Ansett workers' entitlements by a $10 levy on all airline tickets. Up to 17,000 workers had $500 million in entitlements at risk, and another 45,000 workers in related industries stood to lose their jobs through the collapse.

Federal Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott also announced the Employee Entitlements Support Scheme was to be replaced by the General Employee Entitlements and Redundancy Scheme (see 222001). Under the scheme, the Government retains the option of introducing special levies from time to time, as in the Ansett case. Employee entitlements will now be placed ahead of secured creditors when a company collapses.

State industrial relations ministers said after a special ministerial council on the Gold Coast they were concerned by the lack of detail in Abbott's new proposal, including the ad hoc nature of its funding. They said they were also worried that Abbott had not ruled out further 'one-off' tax levies to fund the scheme, and they would continue with a working party to examine alternative arrangements they felt would be fairer to workers and taxpayers.

Meanwhile, Ansett unions are investigating a worker buyout of the airline, and insisted new administrators be appointed after finding PricewaterhouseCoopers' sister company had been involved in work for Air NZ. The Federal Court ordered Arthur Andersen take over instead. Ansett workers are targeting marginal seats during the election campaign. The ASU clerical division has set up an Ansett Hardship fund.

Meanwhile, as Ansett workers wait for outcomes on the prospect of winning back their jobs and entitlements following the collapse of the airline, Virgin Blue is spreading the word on how it keeps employees happy as a budget airline - with union involvement and straightforward enterprise agreements (see 230/2001).

Pre-election lobbying

ACCI's pre-election survey, released in September, lists unfair dismissal costs, workers' compensation payouts and the superannuation guarantee in the top 10 issues of what business thinks should most concern the next Government. Unfair dismissal costs were also in the top 10 issues in the pre-election survey done by the Victorian Employers' Chamber of Commerce and Industry, along with workers' compensation payments and recruiting employees with appropriate skills. Commerce Queensland, on the other hand, says business has faced additional cost imposts through decisions like the casual loading (going up from 19% to 23%), and increases through the state wage case (see 207/2001) and long service leave decisions (see 74a/2001). It ranks unfair dismissal legislation in the top five issues for Queensland business and says the costs on business must be lowered.

Meanwhile, in a surprising response to a pre-election questionnaire for women voters, the Australian Council of Trade Unions has found paid maternity leave is of least concern to women, while job security is the top priority (see 208/2001).

In a survey carried out by fax, email and mail over the six months from International Women's Day in March this year (see 48/2001), 1168 women rated 10 election issues in order of priority.

Building industry Royal Commission

ACTU has sought documents between Federal Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott, the Prime Minister, Office of the Employment Advocate and Government departments under Freedom of Information legislation, which it says will reveal a political motivation behind the Federal Government calling the inquiry. Combet also said if the inquiry was genuinely called to tackle corruption, it would also have in its terms of reference an examination of up to $1 billion per year in tax evasion. Meanwhile, preliminary hearing dates have been announced (see 241/2001).

Workers' compensation

The Government has released a report into common law aspects of the state's workers' compensation scheme for community discussion and response, with the controversial recommendation that a worker must have impairment to 20 per cent of the whole body before being able to sue at common law (see 2).

The NSW WorkCover deficit has blown out to $2.76 billion, as at 30 June, an increase of $577 million since December last year. Minister John Della Bosca said the main reason was a $235 million increase in outstanding liabilities for common law claims, which he said had increased by 35 per cent per annum in recent years. He said there had also been a $115 million increase in commutations, or 'once and for all' lump sum payments. Finally, he said, the Scheme's legal costs for the first six months of the year have considerably exceeded projections. Total projected legal costs of claims to 30 June 2001 now stands at $1.6 billion.

The controversial new dispute resolution system comes into effect on January 1, and the last component of the new laws will be put in place in this session of parliament, when the government responds to the Sheahan inquiry. 'The new dispute resolution system will reverse the cost pressures on the deficit and allow WorkCover to concentrate on injury management and prevention, which are the real keys to caring for workers and providing financial stability in the workers' compensation system,' he said.

And the new OHS NSW Act and regulations, which deal with an employer's duty to consult, began on 1 September.

New AWA research

Employees covered by Australian Workplace Agreements are more likely to think management is doing its best to get on with employees, to work increased hours and to feel they have more influence in how they do their work, according to new research commissioned by the Office of the Employment Advocate (see 22001).

Meanwhile, a new ACIRRT model of analysing industrial agreements has found 'stereotypical nasty AWA' - those dealing only with hours - actually comprise only 18% of all AWAs (see 217/2001).

Sex Discrimination legislation

The Sex Discrimination Amendment Bill (no 2) 2001 was introduced into federal parliament, and takes into account three recommendations of the HREOC Pregnant and Productive report (54/2000):

  • Makes it unlawful to ask questions about pregnancy or potential pregnancy during the recruitment process;
  • Ensures information about pregnancy or potential pregnancy can only be used for certain reasons, like safety;
  • Amends the definition of sex discrimination to make it clear that breastfeeding is an act pertaining to women, and thus discriminating on that ground would be unlawful. However, the Bill was not passed before the Parliament was prorogued before the election.
Privacy

From 1 September the Victorian Information Privacy Act 2000 starts, with a 12-month transitional period. It gives people the right to access information held about them, to correct that information, and remedies if their information privacy is breached. The Act also sets up a framework to collect and handle info in the Victorian public sector. Privacy information principles, based on the 10 federal principles and any codes of practice approved under the Act will come into effect after the 12 months' transition. Personal information is defined under the Act as 'information or an opinion', whether true or not. It does not include health information, which will be covered under the Health Records Act, which comes into effect on 1 March next year. Records held under archives, or public records, are exempt.

WorkplaceInfo

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Bullying

The Queensland Government Workplace Bullying Taskforce has released an issues paper, and called for submissions by 31 October. Public forums are being held across the state. Future dates include: Longreach on October 15, Mt Isa October 18, Rockhampton October 22, Mackay October 23, Townsville October 24 and Cairns October 25.

Industrial disputes

Industrial disputation in Australia increased by more than 50% in the month from May 2001 to June 2001, according to the latest figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (see 216/2001).

Landmark carers case overturned

The landmark discrimination case concerning a Hansard reporter who had duties as a carer and wanted to work from home has been overturned by the Victorian Supreme Court (see 101a/2001). The court ruled the 'attendance requirement' was not inherently unreasonable, and that the Parliament had not discriminated against the woman by failing to provide her with a modem for home use.

Vicarious liability for harassment

The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal ordered a takeaway shop and its manager to pay a 16-year-old female sales assistant $25,000 in general damages for hurt, humiliation, loss of dignity and injury arising from sexual harassment and discrimination (see 107a/2001).

Skilled engineering workers ordered back

The Federal Court of Australia has ordered individual employees to return to work in a unique decision, given that Australian courts have traditionally been reluctant to order specific performance of employment contracts. In this instance, Justice Ray Finkelstein held that it was appropriate to require the specific performance of employment contracts as the employees were defying their obligations to perform work under a current collective agreement (see 108a/2001).

Reasonable hours

The ACTU released a new report - 'Fifty Families: What unreasonable hours do to Australians, their families and their communities' - produced jointly by the University of Sydney's ACIRRT and University of Adelaide's Centre for Labour Research (see 206/2001). It will form part of the evidence the ACTU will submit to the federal Industrial Relations Commission in its quest to have a reasonable hours clause inserted into awards (see 95/2001). The AIRC starts hearing the case in November (see 156/2001).

And Queensland Government research into the impact of working hours on family lives and communities will feed into the Australian Council of Trade Unions' upcoming reasonable hours test case, according to Queensland IR Minister Gordon Nuttall (see 228/2001).

Alcoa wins top work and family award

Alcoa was presented with the gold award for overall excellence in addressing the work/life needs of employees at the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry's Work and Family awards ceremony in Sydney. Alcoa, the world's largest alumina producer, with two mines and three refineries in Western Australia and two smelters in Victoria, also won the award in the large company program for its policies in a male-dominated environment where 12-hour shifts are the norm (see 212/2001).

The other big winner was Ford, which took out the top honours in the single innovative initiative award and the first steps award, which it also won last year (see 122000). Ford has established a WorkLife Balance Week, which is this week, to promote a range of family-friendly options; has a Get a Life newsletter; and a range of flexible work options.

Other winners include Sydney consumer goods company S C Johnson, in the medium business category - its policies include a Shorter Friday whereby manufacturing staff have Friday afternoon off; and Queensland small businesses Sisters Inside, a prison support group, and Gavin Macleod Concrete Pumping. Yarra Valley Water won an award for special employee initiative.

Meanwhile, a report released the day after the awards found that leaving family-friendly measures to individual workplaces has led to a big deterioration in the lives of most working Australian families (see 214/2001).

Industrial manslaughter Bill

The Victorian Bill will go back to Cabinet at the end of October, incorporating amendments, and be presented to parliament in early November. The new Draft Bill has not been revealed yet, but it is believed it contains the removal of the controversial (to employers) reverse onus of proof. Under the new draft, directors and senior officers also will no longer be charged that they should have known. It also tightens up the definition of who are senior officers - it is believed line managers will be removed from this definition under the crimes act, though they and employees could still be liable under common manslaughter and the OHS Act.

Union, Labor outrage over Commission appointments

The union movement has accused the Government of pre-election stacking with the appointment of six new members to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, five of whom have employer backgrounds or links to conservative politics (see 240/2001). The federal Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott had previously denied he was considering the names of some of those appointed (see 207/2001).

Meanwhile, the Federal Court has fined Telstra $75,000 for an incident involving Deputy President Rob Cartwright, in his former job as Telstra's employee relations director. Justice Ray Finkelstein had found Telstra may have discriminated against more than 40,000 award employees after an email from Cartwright to managers urging special consideration for workers covered by Australian Workplace Agreements when considering redundancies (see 132001). That works out to $1.70 per breach, the maximum fine was $10,000 per breach.

Commission presidents speak out

The 'law of the marketplace', which dictated that those with low bargaining power would suffer in a deregulated system, went side-by-side with the public's acceptance that industrial disputation - within bounds - was a fact of life, according to the President of the federal Industrial Relations Commission, Justice Geoffrey Giudice (see 233/2001).

And the Queensland IR system stands in stark contrast to the deregulation of the federal system, but not all the reforms are working as intended, according to the head of that state's Industrial Relations Commission, President David Hall (see 234/2001).

Meanwhile, a former presidential member of the federal Industrial Relations Commission said the latest federal IR system had failed its authors, and critics should remember that shortfalls in a jurisdiction were caused by the parliaments who passed the legislation (see 235/2001).

Pay equity

The National IR Society annual conference on the Gold Coast was the scene for much discussion about pay equity. Queensland IR Minister Gordon Nuttall said progress had been made on a major Beattie Government election promise on pay equity (see 21/2001), with Cabinet endorsing recommendations from the recent Pay Equity Inquiry (see 70/2001). These would give the Qld Industrial Relations Commission new powers to investigate pay equity between male and female workers in agreements struck between employers, unions and employees. The woman who conducted the review, QIRC Commissioner Glenys Fisher, said Queensland women could look forward to rapid changes on the pay equity front (see 232/2001).

Doing thorough research into the history of occupations with pronounced pay inequity was vital for a fair outcome, the Vice President on the NSW Industrial Relations Commission has advised in the lead-up to a full bench hearing on pay equity for public sector librarians (see 231/2001).

Contractors

New Productivity Commission research shows self-employed contractors have become more common in Australia over the past 20 years (see 238/2001). In August 1998, 10 per cent of employed persons, or 844,000 individuals, worked as self-employed contractors and 25 per cent of self-employed contractors were dependent contractors

People

One of the Australians presumed killed in the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11 was Andrew Knox, a former industrial officer with the South Australian branch of the Australian Workers' Union.


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