Seventeen of Australia’s leading academic researchers in industrial relations and labour market issues recently released a series of papers analysing the Howard government’s proposed changes to Australia’s industrial relations laws.
Dr Bradon Ellem, Associate Professor, Industrial Relations, from the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Economics and Business spoke to The Lamp about their findings.
The Lamp: What, in your opinion, are the principal economic challenges facing Australia today, and do these IR proposals from the government address them?
Associate Professor Bradon Ellem: I think, as do most researchers and even the government itself, that the major issues are skills shortages, slowing productivity and work and family balance. There is a lot of discussion about them but they are not addressed at all in the government’s proposals.
The Lamp: The government talks a lot about giving choice to employees – does the rhetoric line up with reality?
BE: I don’t think it does. I’m not an uncritical defender of a centralised IR system. There needs to be innovation and change. There needs to be genuine flexibility and choice to change the work/family balance. I’m concerned about the lack of flexibility and choices. New employees will be required to sign up on an AWA as a condition of employment. That is no choice. The government says we are overregulated yet in most OECD countries there is no way an employee can be forced onto a contract they’re not happy with.
The Lamp: The government says they are no more than simplifying awards to make them easier to understand. Does this assertion withstand your analysis?
BE: No it doesn’t. It is re-regulation rather than deregulation. In the simplifying of awards since 1996 the impact has been to reduce the number of areas where there is arbitration. It reduces the scope for arbitration and the impact of the Industrial Relations commission.
The Lamp: The nursing sector is a predominantly female workforce and suffering from an extreme labour shortage. What impact do you think these IR changes will have on a sector like this?
BE: It will depend on how organised and active at the base a nursing union is. The laws are designed to make it difficult to carry out different forms of industrial action and to make it difficult for organisers to get into a workplace. It’s not inevitable things will be bad for unions. If you are organised – if you have a good delegate structure and good communications – unions will be able to withstand them.
The Lamp: The government’s plan to override the state systems and create one unified national system sounds very ambitious. Is it feasible and will it be a positive development for employees?
BE: A fair unified system that recognised workers’ rights and encouraged workers choice would be good. That’s not what is on offer here. There’s a paradox about the way the government talks about one federal system. On the one hand they say they want one piece of IR legislation but in effect there would be much more fragmentation with the spread of AWAs. This would be especially true in regional areas. Certainly it would lead to a greater disparity in wages between city and country.
The Lamp: Taking all the changes the government is proposing into account, do you think the overall package will be an improvement?
BE: I can’t see it as an improvement for employees and it doesn’t seriously address the real problems and issues. The government likes to call it a plan for a modern workplace and that unions and academic critics are stuck in the past yet this has been a long-term agenda by the Liberals. Howard has been talking about it for over 20 years. Costello as well. They are still talking about the same things from over 20 years ago.
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