WorkChoices winds back but the dangers remain

Winding back WorkChoices is a good first step to protecting your rights at work but it will take two years to get rid of all elements of WorkChoices. Meanwhile, many nurses are still not secure in their jobs.

The Rudd Labor Government has promised to abolish the worst of Howard’s WorkChoices laws.

In February, Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard introduced into Parliament proposed laws banning new Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) and replacing the Howard government’s fairness test with a ‘no disadvantage’ test.

The Government is pushing to have the legislation banning AWAs passed by Easter.

The Coalition’s leadership team of Julie Bishop and Brendan Nelson had tried to prevent the abolition of AWAs by using its Senate majority to block the legislation in the Senate – despite Australians voting overwhelmingly for their abolition in last year’s federal election.

However, Bishop and Nelson agreed to drop their demand that Labor retain AWAs after strong opposition from within their own party.

NSWNA General Secretary Brett Holmes said the Association will be holding the government to account and pushing it to match the expectations of voters.

‘We applaud the government’s prompt move to ban AWAs. However, other elements of WorkChoices won’t disappear for another two years. And we don’t yet know the full details of what will replace them,’ said Brett.

Public health system nurses were offered some protection from WorkChoices when they were made NSW Crown employees by the NSW Iemma Government in 2006.

However, most aged care and private hospital sector nurses are still subject to elements of WorkChoices and are not secure in their jobs. They can still be unfairly sacked or pressured to sign non-union agreements.

The trend for workplace agreements negotiated at the employer level – rather than industry-wide – will continue because the laws will not allow industry-wide negotiation. Agreements need to be negotiated employer by employer.

‘That’s why nurses need to remain vigilant and maintain a strong union membership at their workplace so they are in a strong bargaining position,’ said Brett.

Not secure but you can still get a better deal at work

‘Even under WorkChoices, many aged care and private hospital nurses won excellent union collective agreements with significant pay rises and better conditions.

‘This was achieved by nurses getting organised at their individual workplaces in aged care and private hospitals and bargaining for union collective agreements with their employer.

‘By getting your workmates to join the Association you will be in stronger negotiating position and can present a united front to your employer. And you’ll have the backing and industrial expertise of the NSWNA,’ said Brett.

What types of agreements are possible?
Union Collective Agreements
The highest paid aged care nurses in NSW are covered by Union Collective Agreements (UCAs). These cover about 20% of the aged care workforce, and 80% of private hospital nurses.

A UCA means that employees – supported by their union – work together and negotiate as a group with management.

By standing together, nurses have greater bargaining power, backed by expert advice and negotiation skills from NSWNA officials.

An agreement only becomes effective after employees have voted in favour of it.

The best UCAs deliver the best features of the old award plus improvements. In recent aged care agreements these have included:

  • uaranteed annual wage increases – commonly 3.5% or 4%
  • paid maternity leave of up to 12 weeks
  • a new classification of endorsed enrolled nurse with higher pay
  • a new classification of AiN team leader, with higher pay
  • future pay increases
  • extended long service leave which accrues faster.

Beware Employee Collective Agreements
There is a second type of collective agreement that excludes union involvement. It’s called an Employee Collective Agreement (ECA).
ECAs don’t allow for genuine negotiations. They are an example of the double-speak the previous government brought to the workplace. Although called Employee Collective Agreements, they are, in practice, driven by employers who don’t want to deal with your representatives.

ECAs are attractive to employers who want to hold down pay and conditions.

At least one NSW employer has imposed a non-union ECA on nurses.

But other employer attempts to impose ECAs have been voted down buy nurses.

ECAs will remain legal under the new government’s industrial laws.

Don’t be fooled into accepting an ECA. The NSWNA knows what is happening across the industry and with its support you will find it easier to negotiate a fair agreement.

Time’s up for AWAs
The Labor Federal Government is already moving to act on its promise to ban new Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs).

However, at the moment you can still be offered an AWA but it must expire by December 2009.

If you are on an AWA that expires before December 2009, your employer can put you on a transitional individual agreement until that date.

If you are on an AWA, it will continue to operate for its full term – up to five years.

If your employer asks you to sign an AWA:

  1. Don’t sign.
  2. Ask for time to consider the contract – don’t believe management pressure that you must sign straight away, or it’s ‘confidential’ and you can’t seek advice!
  3. Contact the NSWNA on 1300 367 962.

What happens to unfair dismissal laws?
Under WorkChoices, if you worked in a nursing home or private hospital with fewer than 100 employees you could be dismissed with no reason given.

When new laws come into effect later this year, you will be protected from unfair dismissal no matter where you work, even if you are a fixed-term contractor or on probation.

However, if you’re a casual or earn over $98,200 a year you may not be entitled to claim for unfair dismissal.

Labor intends to introduce a mediation system to avoid expensive court costs for workers claiming unfair dismissal.

Nurses who feel they have been unfairly dismissed will need union advice and support to get the best possible result from any mediation process.