The IR laws are a state issue too

The NSW State election is shaping up as a referendum on the Coalition’s IR laws. While the laws have been introduced at a federal level, the election of a state Liberal government could see an extra million workers, including public hospital nurses, swept into the federal system. The Lamp looks at how the parties line up on IR.

Debnam supports the federal IR laws

Liberal leader Peter Debnam has clearly stated he will hand over the one million workers protected by the NSW industrial relations system to the federal system introduced by John Howard.

On 8 October 2005, he told The Sydney Morning Herald he believed the High Court challenge by the Labor government was a waste of money and confirmed it was still the policy of the state coalition to cede industrial relations powers to the Commonwealth.

This was confirmed by NSW Nationals leader Andrew Stoner who told ABC radio in December 2006, ‘In relation to WorkChoices, I absolutely support WorkChoices.’

Debnam has said he would keep public hospital nurses within the state system but has made no mention of protecting nurses in private hospitals or in aged care who now find themselves exposed to John Howard’s IR laws in the federal system.

Iemma will fight for workers’ rights

The Iemma government has been clear and active in its opposition to John Howard’s laws:

  • It has introduced legislation to protect frontline public sector workers including nurses but also police, TAFE teachers and ambulance officers.
  • It has introduced laws to ensure young people under 18 years of age remain under the protection of the NSW Industrial Relations system. This would ensure they receive wages and conditions at least the level provided by NSW awards and legislation and are covered by unfair dismissal laws that were removed by Howard.
  • It has promised to maintain the standards of OHS safety in the face of federal schemes designed to drive down standards to the lowest common denominator.
  • It has promised to strengthen the powers of the NSW Industrial Relations Commission.

Comparisons on pay

Statistics show the current Labor Government’s record on nursing wages has delivered much fairer outcomes and progress towards paying nurses what they are worth.

Under the Greiner/Fahey Liberal government, the top RN rate increased from $680.30 in 1992 to $728.70 in 1995. Over that three year period, the pay rate increased by an average of only 2.4% per year.

The ALP regained government in April 1995 and returned a fairer IR system. Since that date, the top RN nurse rate has increased from $728.70 to the current rate of $1185.20, an increase of 62.6%. This represents an average increase over the 11 year period of 5.7% per year.

The role of the NSW IR Commission

An analysis of nurses’ pay rates over the past 20 years demonstrates that access to the independent umpire of the NSW Industrial Relations Commission is absolutely critical. The Commission has assessed nurses’ pay rates on a number of occasions since 1986 and determined that, in addition to the increases negotiated with the Health Department, significant pay increases were needed to compensate nurses for the increased value of their work.

  • 1986 – increases ranging from 10% to 28% were paid.
  • 1988-1990 – increases for RNs of between 3% and 13%.
  • 2003-2004 – increases of 9%.

Liberal leader Peter Debnam has fudged his position on the future of the NSW IR Commission. In March 2006 when asked whether he’d keep the NSW Commission or shut it down he said: ‘We’ll spell it out later in the year.’ He has yet to clarify that position.

Clear differences on OHS

The Howard Government has told the states they must voluntarily standardise OHS legislation or face a federal takeover of the laws. If the recent Commonwealth OHS Act is a guide, such a move would reduce protection from injury and illness to a standard far lower than that currently available to NSW workers.

If nurses are in a more vulnerable employment situation because of WorkChoices they are less likely to complain to the employer about OHS risks including risk of client-related violence, manual handling and infection control risks.

WorkChoices further worsens this situation by limiting the rights of entry available to union officers. This makes it more difficult for union officers to enter workplaces and collect information about safety problems.

Recent changes that allow private organisations to insure under the federal Comcare system for workers’ compensation is an additional threat.

This effectively removes the organisation from the state jurisdiction for OHS legislation. For nurses, this means reduced workers’ compensation benefits and OHS protections. The NSWNA understands that two large private hospital employers have applied to the Commonwealth Government to insure under Comcare.

Liberals’ leader Peter Debnam is on the public record as supporting these changes. He was quoted in The Australian on 15 May 2006 as stating ‘a Coalition government in NSW would freeze all workplace safety cases before the state’s industrial court’.

The Australian also reported that Mr Debnam announced that under a Coalition government unions would lose their rights to prosecute under OHS legislation. Union right of entry could also be severely limited.

The result of this would be a veil of secrecy over safety issues in workplaces and complicity in this cover-up of poor employers’ behaviour.