The Liberal leader wants to put individual contracts right back at the heart of the industrial relations system.
“If Tony Abbott has changes he wants the Productivity Commission to look at, why doesn’t he tell us what they are?”
– ACTU Secretary Dave Oliver
Anxious to avoid the stigma of WorkChoices in the run-up to the federal election, Tony Abbott announced a cautious, “small target” industrial relations policy.
The new policy is silent on issues that were central to the Liberals’ discredited WorkChoices program, and which remain dear to the hearts and wallets of the Liberal Party’s corporate sponsors.
These include abolition of penalty rates, use of individual contracts to replace collective bargaining, elimination of unfair dismissal claims and tougher restrictions on the right to take industrial action.
Business lobby groups, such as the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, have criticised the new Liberal policy as too soft.
The head of the Australian Retailers’ Association, Russell Zimmerman, asked why employers should wait four more years for “employment regulation reforms”.
He was referring to the Liberal policy promise to hold a Productivity Commission inquiry into industrial relations, and to act on its recommendations, but only after the subsequent election.
The ACTU warns that the inquiry will be Tony Abbott’s pathway to WorkChoices Version 2.
ACTU Secretary Dave Oliver called on Mr Abbott to release the terms of reference for the Productivity Commission inquiry, so workers know what rights could be at risk under an Abbott Government.
“The Productivity Commission has a long track record of recommending cuts to penalty rates and the wider use of individual contracts, and any inquiry will be dominated by the voices of business groups,” Mr Oliver said.
ACTU President Ged Kearney, a former nurse, said Mr Abbott had failed to outline the Coalition’s long-term agenda for industrial relations.
“All we know is that there will be a Productivity Commission inquiry into further changes. If Tony Abbott has changes he wants the Productivity Commission to look at, why doesn’t he tell us what they are?” she asked. “We know that prior to the 2004 election there was no mention of WorkChoices and its attack on pay and conditions. The current policy announcement should be treated with the same suspicion.”
The Liberal’s industrial relations policy included a measure to expand the use of Individual Flexibility Agreements between a single employee and their employer.
These enhanced flexibility agreements will be allowed to override collectively-negotiated agreements so that an individual worker can “negotiate” with their boss “on conditions that are suitable to their individual needs” as the policy puts it.
The ACTU called this an attempt to return individual contracts to the heart of the IR system.
Ged Kearney says employees do not want to see a return to WorkChoices-style individual agreements, regardless of what Mr Abbott wants to call them.
“Allowing Individual Flexibility Agreements to override negotiated agreements opens the door to employers using them to drive down conditions and entitlements that workers have fought for,” she said.
She said there was nothing in the Liberals’ IR policy to help employees balance work and family life, which would improve conditions for low-paid workers, or tackle the issue of insecure work.
“The Coalition has refused to recognise that insecure work is a major issue for Australian workers and that one-in-four workers has no access to sick leave, annual leave or carers’ leave.
“Mr Abbott is yet to commit to supporting the federal Labor Government’s bid to enshrine penalty rates in law. This will be a bigger test of his real views on IR than his policy launch.”
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