The Guardian September 5, 2001


Small business employees targeted

The Government has recycled a revised version of its 1998 union bashing 
legislation aimed at exempting small businesses from unfair dismissal laws. 
More than three million workers employed by small businesses will lose 
their legal protection against low wages, sackings and substandard 
conditions if the legislation is passed.

The Workplace Relations and Other Legislation Amendment (Small Business and 
Other Measures) Bill 2001 exempts small businesses with 20 or less 
employees (up from 15 in 1998's version) from the unfair dismissal 
provision of the Workplace Relations Act.

The Australian Industrial Relations Commission will be given the power to 
decline to deal with unfair dismissal applications from small business 
employees. The Commission will be able to deal with cases via 
correspondence and reject a worker's application if it is considered 
"unmeritorious or vexatious".

The proposed legislation excludes apprentices, trainees or workers employed 
before the legislation became law, but it still allows the Commission to 
dismiss an application from those employees if "reasonably satisfied" it is 
frivolous or vexatious, is lacking in substance or outside the Commission's 
jurisdiction.

The legislation would effectively bar unions from workplaces  "to 
streamline the agreement making processes" as Workplace Relations Minister 
Tony Abbott puts it, to "limit the scope of the unwelcome involvement of 
third parties", i.e unions.

This would expedite "the right of all employers and employees to determine 
their own working relations", i.e. give employers the unhindered freedom to 
impose individual work contracts (Australian Workplace Agreements) and non-
union agreements. 

The current 14-day consideration period for a non-union agreement would be 
scrapped and the Commission would no longer be required to conduct formal 
hearings to certify non-union agreements. The Employment Advocate, whose 
task it is to oversee the imposition of AWAs, will now be able to approve 
AWAs without reference to the Commission.

The Bill would amend the Trade Practices Act to give the Australian 
Consumer and Competition Commission the power to take legal action against 
unions by using the secondary boycott provisions  sections 45D and 45E  
of the Act.

Under the Bill small businesses will be exempted from awards and from 
Commission hearings. A dispute for a log of claims under the award in a 
workplace with 20 or less employees will only be recognised if the union 
can prove there is a union member involved.

The legislation says the identity of union members would be kept 
confidential, a ludicrous claim in a small workplace where the employer 
wants to exclude the union and where the identification of any workers who 
are union members would mean the axe.

Further, before a union can enter a workplace it must be invited by a union 
member. Again there is the meaningless provision that the union member may 
remain anonymous. In addition, union right of entry would be limited to 
once every six months.

Unions will be required to give five working days written notice of their 
intention to enter a workplace. The employer can then reject the date 
proposed by the union and instead tell the union by letter the date on 
which it may enter.

Employers would also be given free rein to use body hire casual labour 
because use of body hire firms would be considered a commercial arrangement 
and not an employer-employee relationship. This is to "ensure that awards 
and agreements do not restrict employers from entering into contracts for 
services, or require employers to include particular terms and conditions 
in such contracts", said Abbott.

This means that provisions requiring body hire labour to observe work bans 
and strikes, and limitations on how and when casual labour might be used 
would no longer apply.

The ACTU noted that small businesses were struggling because of the 
Government's GST and the economic slowdown it has contributed to and were 
desperately trying to recover lost ground.

The Government is providing them with greater freedoms to cut wages and 
working conditions. 

"These laws unfairly discriminate against half the workforce", said ACTU 
Secretary Greg Combet. "Why should employees have fewer legal rights and 
protections just because they work in small businesses?"

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