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Issue # 1404      25 March 2009

Your Rights at Work Campaign – job not done

The Rudd government’s Fair Work Bill passed through the Senate last week and now formally replaces the Howard governmment’s odious WorkChoices. The legislation was held up for a time as the Coalition, Family First’s Senator Fielding and SA independent Senator Nick Xenophon pressed for even greater concessions for employers, particularly over unfair dismissals.

The Greens, who were calling for the rights of workers and their unions to be respected, were isolated in their demand for a genuine overhaul of industrial relations in line with the wishes of the voters who dumped Howard at the last federal elections. The new IR regime does not deliver on the promises made to the workers of Australia to scrap WorkChoices. It poses a challenge to the many people and grassroots organisations that supported the Your Rights at Work campaign to press on for real change.

At the end of the standoff, Senator Fielding relented and agreed that for the purposes of unfair dismissals, small businesses should be those with less than the equivalent of 15 full time employees. Along with the Coalition and Xenophon, he had been holding out for the bar to be set at 20. Small businesses will be exempt from claims for unfair dismissal from new employees for up to 12 months. Other businesses will have a free hand to sack for six months without question. The new arrangements will come into force on January 1, 2011.

In virtually every other sense, the new legislation carries forward the legacy of WorkChoices. There is no industry-wide system of collective agreements. Pattern bargaining is still barred. Unions are not restored to their proper role as the representatives of workers in negotiations. Non-union and no-union agreements are still allowed. AWAs are gone in name but statutory and non-statutory individual contracts live on. Awards are still gutted by comparison to pre-WorkChoices days.

Unions still have tight clamps placed on their right of entry to workplaces in order to recruit, organise, represent and protect workers. There is no right to strike and severe limits are still placed on union members needing to take industrial action. And, as promised to property developers and their financial backers, the Australian Building and Construction Commission will be free to continue in its function as an anti-union secret police force on building sites until it is replaced by a similar outfit from 2010.

Fair Work Australia, the new one-stop IR shop that replaces the Industrial Relations Commission, will keep out of disputes between workers and their well-supported bosses except as a last resort and then in very limited circumstances. Action in solidarity with other workers remains illegal. The focus of the new legislation stays fixed on containing industrial action by workers and limiting their concerns to a very short list of matters related to employment at their particular enterprise.

Industrial Minister Julia Gillard has claimed before, during and after the Senate debate that the government has delivered a package that will deliver “fair” outcomes in good times and in bad. She was answering the protests of opponents of the Fair Work Bill like Malcolm Turnbull, Joe Hockey and Peter Costello who claimed, disingenuously, that the economic situation of the country would not permit the introduction of such a “new” IR scheme. Indeed, the system overseen by Fair Work Australia does help employers to place the greatest burden flowing from the unfolding recession onto the backs of workers. However, it is by no means “fair”.

WorkChoices is not dead and buried. Unions and the community organisations that fought tooth and nail to have the anti-worker legislation scrapped must now go back to campaigning for a genuine shake-up of industrial relations. The job of the Your Rights at Work campaign is still not done.

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