Howard’s fairness test is a sham – June 2007

Howard`s `fairness test` does nothing to undo the unfairness of his federal IR laws.

In recent weeks the already intense debate about the federal government’s IR laws has gone up a notch with the release of the Labor party’s workplace policy and the ensuing hysterical response by business groups and adjustments to the laws by the government.

One thing is clear: two years of campaigning by union members against these unfair laws has made both major parties sit up and take notice.

Mr Howard has moved to quell the rebellion with a backflip that, he contends, will ensure employees are not disadvantaged when they move on to individual contracts. An analysis by the ACTU argues the truth is quite different (see story p 18).

According to Mr Howard, under his new changes every single AWA and collective agreement made after 7 May 2007 will be checked to make sure  it is ‘fair’ and that employees are compensated for every condition stripped away.

Since WorkChoices was introduced, 306,000 AWAs and 2,862 non-union collective agreements have been approved by federal government agencies. To scrutinise these agreements and ensure any trade-off is compensated for is a massive job and it won’t be done. Any unfairness for these workers will stay in place.

Independent legal experts say it would require thousands of new employees to adequately police this quantity of agreements and the thousands more lodged each week.

Yet, in Peter Costello’s budget, the Office of Employment Advocate, already a toothless tiger, will be reduced by 57 people.

It is early evidence that the so-called ‘fairness test’ is a sham.

A close look at the fine print of Mr Howard’s changes reveals you may not get compensation for losing all your entitlements if your employer says they can’t afford it, or where the offer of a job is deemed sufficient compensation, or where you are provided with something you don’t need, like a pizza or movie tickets as compensation.

Even if these changes were genuine they would be minimal and the essence of the original laws – an all-out attack on collective bargaining, the decent safety net of awards and the independent umpire – would remain intact.

In contrast, Labor has produced an industrial relations policy that is underpinned by these fundamental rights, which are consistent with international norms. In particular, the right to collectively bargain is seen elsewhere, if not by the Howard government, as a core feature of a democratic society.

Labor is to be commended for getting the policy out early for analysis and debate. We should remember that the Liberal Party gave us no such opportunity to examine their radical laws before the last election.

We should take with a grain of salt the hysterical reaction to Labor’s policy from the business lobby groups and their cheer leaders in the media.

The Howard government’s workplace laws were designed to facilitate a fundamental shift of power in the workplace in favour of employers at the expense of employees. It is to be expected that employers will kick and scream to maintain this power.

The biggest issue to come out of this latest development on the IR front is one of credibility. For over two years Mr Howard and his party have accused the union movement of lies and deceit because of our strong campaign against the laws. In fact, this union was lambasted in such a fashion by the Liberal party during the state election for voicing such concerns. Now they are conceding that, yes, the laws were always unfair.

Until there is a complete rewrite of these federal industrial laws there is no chance that workers’ rights will be regained or even a level of true fairness can be established in our workplaces. For those members currently protected in the NSW State IR system, we must never abandon the almost 20,000 nurse members in the grips of the federal industrial laws.