The Guardian 19 October, 2005

Howard Government/Big Business
offensive at a glance:

The government calls its new industrial relations system "WorkChoices" and promises "choice", "flexibility", "protection" and a "simpler" system. But it will mean choice for employers — and no choice for workers.

Employment contracts

The term "enterprise agreement" has been dropped and EBAs will be phased out as they expire. In there place there will be collective agreements which do not necessarily cover an enterprise and individual employment contracts (AWAs — Australian Workplace Agreements) . The word "agreement" is misused to describe an employment contract between an employer and individual worker or group of workers. It does not mean that there is a genuine negotiation process — an impossibility for individual workers to do with a boss. Nor does it imply that those signing it agreed with its contents. It means they agreed to work under those conditions — the other option being no job and no unemployment benefits.

UnFair Pay and Conditions Standard

Misnamed as "Fair Pay and Conditions Standard"

Comprises minimum wages rates & four legislated minimum conditions:

Low Pay Commission

The misnamed "Fair Pay Commission" will set and adjust minimum wage rates for adults, juniors, trainees, apprenticeship, piece work and award classification levels and casual loadings.

Its decisions will be based on "the capacity for the unemployed and low paid to obtain and remain in employment", "employment and competitiveness across the economy and provide a safety net for the low paid". Translated into workers’ English this means very low wages.

The adult minimum wage rate will not fall (in dollar terms) below $12.75 an hour ($484.40 per week) for 38 hours.

Real wages will fall as prices rise.

Legislated conditions

1. Annual leave — four weeks paid annual leave and an additional week for certain categories of shift workers.

Up to two weeks may be cashed out every 12 months.

2. Personal/carer’s leave (including sick leave) — ten days of leave after 12 months service. Leave is cumulative and up to 10 days per annum can be used as carer’s leave. Two days paid compassionate leave are possible per occasion. A further two days of unpaid carer’s leave in the case of an unexpected emergency if leave is exhausted and for casuals.

3. Parental leave (including maternal leave) — up to 52 weeks of unpaid parental leave.

4. Maximum ordinary hours of work of 38 per week — used as basis for minimum wage by Low Pay Commission. "An employer may require an employee to work reasonable additional hours." No restrictions on hours of work, no requirements to pay for overtime, penalty rates, etc. This is left for awards, collective agreements and AWAs.

This new standard is the only "protection" that workers can be sure of under the government’s new system. Everything else is up for grabs by the employers. The government’s aim is to have every individual worker "negotiate" on an individual basis with his or her employer for any provisions or higher wage rates over and above that barest of minimum standard.

Unfair Pay and Conditions Standard is the fallback position after an agreement is terminated until another agreement is in place.

Awards stripped and merged

Federal and relevant state awards will be stripped back, merged into a few industry sector awards and some deleted. Not only do workers covered by these awards stand to suffer cuts in conditions, but a whole new arena of coverage and potential union demarcation disputes will be created.

Awards only cover workers who do not have an individual contract (AWA) or collective agreement. Awards do not underpin AWAs or collective agreements. The "no disadvantage test", where workers must not be worse off than under the award, will be abolished. They will be worse off. After all, that is the aim of the legislation.

Awards — allowable matters:

  • ordinary time hours of work and the times within which they are performed, rest breaks, notice periods and variations to working hours

  • public holidays

  • ceremonial leave

  • allowances

  • loadings for working overtime or shift work

  • penalty rates

  • redundancy pay for employers with 15 or more employees

  • stand-down provisions

  • dispute-settling procedures

  • type of employment, such as full-time, casual, regular part-time and shift

    All awards must contain provisions permitting the employment of regular part-time workers.

    AWAs and collective non-union agreements override the award. It will not be possible to be covered by an award if party to an agreement.

    The following award provisions will apply in AWAs and collective agreements, unless they specifically indicate how they will be modified or that they have been removed. In other words, they are not automatically wiped from an award, but they can be wiped or changed. They are:

  • public holidays

  • rest breaks (including meal breaks)

  • annual leave loadings

  • allowances

  • penalty rates

  • shift/overtime loadings

    Awards - NOT allowable

  • superannuation (fallback on legislated provisions)

  • jury service (fallback on legislated provisions)

  • notice of termination (fallback on legislated provisions)

  • trade union leave and training

  • paid union meetings

  • bargaining fees

  • restrictions on use of contractors, casuals, part-timers

  • union membership a condition of employment

  • mandatory application of agreement to sub-contractors

  • future agreements be union agreements

  • exclusion of AWAs in workplace

  • unfair dismissal remedies

  • provision for industrial action during life of agreement

  • skill-based career paths

  • restrictions on apprentices and trainees

  • union picnic days and so on

    There will be six types of agreement. These include:

    Employee collective agreements: "negotiated between a group of employees in a workplace and an employer that will cover the wages and conditions of the group of employees in the workplace".

    Union collective agreements: "negotiated between employers and unions that represent employees in a workplace. The agreement will cover the wages and conditions of the group of employees in the workplace the union is negotiating on behalf of."

    Australian Workplace Agreements: "Negotiated", in reality imposed, refusal to sign is grounds to refuse to employ someone. It will be easy to sack existing employees without unfair dismissal protection in workplaces of 100 or less employees.

    The employer provides the AWA, the worker signs it or no job. The AWA is lodged with Office of the Employment Advocate (OEA) along with statutory declaration from the employer that it was "negotiated in compliance with the law" and it becomes immediately binding. No inspection of the AWA by the OEA. The only legal requirement regarding contents is that they are not less than the UnFair Pay and Conditions Standard.

    AWAs can operate for up to five years, during that time the only changes that can be made (unless both parties agree) are to bring it into line with changes to the UnFair Pay and Conditions Standard.

    These agreements alongside AWAs create the possibility for workers doing the same job alongside each other, with the same experience and training, to be on different wages and conditions and covered by different trade unions, a company union or no union at all.

    It is a recipe for creating a divisive environment where worker is pitted against worker, and intimidation, victimisation and favouritism reign.

    Compulsory dispute settling procedure (DSP)

    The government is going to provide a "model DSP" which will be obligatory if alternative dispute settling procedures are not provided in an agreement or AWA. The text is not available, but it will start with a one-to-one situation between the boss and worker, not with the union.

    Unfair & unlawful dismissal

    Businesses with 100 or less employees exempt from unfair dismissal laws.

    In larger workplaces the laws only apply after six months’ employment, and then do not apply "where employment has been terminated because the employer genuinely no longer requires the job to be done (i.e. operational requirements)."

    Other provisions

    Industrial action is virtually outlawed and a body to police the entire workforce will be put in place. These and other issues will be covered in future issues of The Guardian.

    Meanwhile join your union if you are not a member. Put your hand up to be active in defeating the legislation. Support your union’s actions and encourage others.

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