Your rights at work restored

Central to the Rudd Government’s new IR laws is the right for workers to collectively bargain and be represented by their union.

After an exhaustive period of consultation, Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard has introduced the Federal Government’s Fair Work Bill to Parliament. While not everything we wanted, Unions believe it does much to restore rights at work for Australian workers.

Key elements of the draft laws are the restoration of unfair dismissal laws, the right to collectively bargain, a strong safety net and an independent umpire.

Unfair dismissal rights were a key part of the Your Rights At Work campaign and are being been restored. There will be a qualifying period of 12 months for those working in a company employing fewer than 15 employees and six months with a workplace employing more than 15 workers.

A strong safety net

The new IR laws will be underpinned by a safety net comprised of 12 National Employment Standards and modern awards. Modern awards and minimum wages will be set by Fair Work Australia. Awards will be readjusted every four years ‘so they remain relevant to changing community standards’, according to Julia Gillard.

The kind of test cases that were prosecuted by the union movement in the past, such as for maternity leave, redundancy pay and superannuation, will still be possible.

There are strong rights for workers to collectively bargain and be represented by their union. Agreements will be scrutinised by Fair Work Australia before they come into operation and they will not be able to undermine the National Employment Standards. This means entitlements such as overtime, penalty rates, public holidays, redundancy and annual leave will be protected. Right of entry to workplaces by unions has been improved.

An independent umpire

These legal rights will be backed up by an independent umpire, which will have the ability to step in as a last resort and resolve disputes that prove intractable.

Unions have been pushing for compulsory arbitration by the Government’s new body Fair Work Australia, which will take over the traditional functions of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. This will now happen when there are serious breaches of ‘good faith bargaining’ in protracted disputes such as at Telstra and Cochlear. Unions believe this will prevent unscrupulous employers from snubbing their noses at the rights of employees to collectively bargain.

Access to arbitration will also be available for low-paid workers who have little bargaining power.

Julia Gillard agreed to these claims after months of concerted union pressure.

‘This is a major step forward which will provide a strong deterrent against the infringement of workers’ rights and entitlements with employers facing court-imposed injunctions, penalties and a wide range of orders,’ said ACTU Secretary Jeff Lawrence.

‘These are big steps forward for Australian workers. They are a far cry from the aggressively unfair and anti-union WorkChoices.’

Plenty of consultation

Julia Gillard, who oversaw the crafting of the draft new laws, said the Government put a high priority on consulting a wide range of parties through the Committee on Industrial Legislation (COIL).

‘The Howard Government gave COIL a few short hours to review the complex and lengthy WorkChoices bill and this was only after the legislation was presented to the Parliament,’ she said.

‘In our COIL process over 50 people met for two weeks in Canberra in October to work through the detail of the draft legislation. The legislation I will present to the Parliament this month will be all the better for the excellent advice and feedback I have had from this excellent group.’

Jeff Lawrence said there may be gaps in the legislation that unions will continue to address but workers have got the great bulk of what we campaigned for in the last Federal Election.

‘We want WorkChoices consigned to the rubbish bin of history, along with the failed neo-liberal policies of deregulation and the corporate excess they have engendered,’ he said.

What the proposed draft laws deliver

  • Protection from unfair dismissal is restored.
  • There is a strong safety net.
  • Agreements cannot undermine safety net.
  • There is an independent umpire.
  • There is a right to collective bargaining.

Timetable

  • Bill entered Parliament 25 November 2008.
  • Senate inquiry concludes by mid February 2009.
  • Laws enacted mid March 2009
  • New unfair dismissal laws and bargaining rules commence 1 July 2009.
  • Modern awards and Fair Work Australia commence January 2010.
  • Australian Building and Construction Commission abolished 1 February 2010.

Vox pops:

‘The Your Rights at Work campaign was a wonderful example of the power of a united voice. We woke people up and spurred the community to action. I say congratulations to everyone involved – vocal and non-vocal. It was unfortunate that the previous government didn’t listen to us. They went too far and completely underestimated our resolve to sustain a fair and reasonable workplace.

‘We’ve never been this political before and I think it was a bit of a shock to them. Unions had to spend a lot of money but it was an important investment in our future. It is frightening to think what might have happened.

‘Nurses are a caring profession and I think people thought “if nurses are saying this, something must be wrong”. I’m proud of what we achieved. I don’t see it as bringing down a government – we were just protecting our profession and raising awareness.’

Karen Fernance, NUM, Bankstown/Lidcombe Hospital

‘This is a great moment for workers. WorkChoices was downright insulting to the ordinary working person. It was essential that we got collective bargaining and protection from unfair dismissal back on the table. We needed a system that was fair to both workers and employers – particularly small employers.

‘I didn’t know what I was getting into when I got involved in the Your Rights at Work campaign (I was a political virgin!) but it has been immensely worthwhile. It has vastly improved my confidence and negotiating skills and I’ve met some incredible people. I am very proud to have been involved in the campaign – I think it has made unions and communities stronger.’

Dianne Lang, AiN, Imlay House Nursing Home