Fair Work Act – a reason to celebrate?

July 3, 2009

Low-paid workers in luxury hotels, including cleaners and kitchen staff, were the first to lodge an application with Fair Work Australia (FWA) when the federal government's new industrial relations regime, the Fair Work Act 2009, came into effect on July 1.

Workers from 15 luxury hotels chose the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers' Union (LHMU) as their representative to secure a collective agreement.

After lodging their claim, some of the workers attended FWA's inaugural sitting, which was marked by a media scrum, triumphant rhetoric and kisses exchanged between deputy PM Julia Gillard and Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) president Sharan Burrow.

FWA will replace the Australian Industrial Relations Commission and the Workplace Ombudsman, among other bodies. It has the power to set pay rates, hear industrial disputes and investigate breaches.

The notorious Australian Building Construction Commission will be replaced by a specialist division within FWA from January 31, 2010.

LHMU national secretary Louise Tarrant told the June 2 Australian that even though the union had not outlined a specific set of claims yet, the application lodged would require the hotels to bargain "in good faith" with their workers. The Fair Work Act allows for new pay rates and conditions to be arbitrated if an agreement between the parties can't be reached.

Workers are hoping to increase their pay to cover living costs. Many workers in five-star hotels, such as the Sheraton, Hilton and Marriott chains, earn only $14.31 per hour. The LMHU said luxury hotels have the country's highest proportion of low-paid workers and the highest rate of injury for women workers.

The June 29 Australian said 40 luxury hotels across the country had rushed through non-union agreements covering 5000 workers in the last six weeks alone. Only four non-union agreements struck across the sector in the past 16 years.

The LMHU claims this was done in order to avoid the low pay provisions in the new legislation, before it came into effect on July 1. The non-union agreements can lock workers in until 2012.

Bill Healy, CEO of the Australian Hotels Association, inadvertently agreed. He told Hospitalitymagazine.com that, "several of our members decided they would take advantage of the laws and put agreements to their staff. They have not been rushed through. Some businesses thought it better to push through these new agreements than to sit back and wait."

Not all unionists were as enthusiastic as the ACTU leadership about the Fair Work Act. While the ACTU claims the new laws "represent a historic step forward for the rights of working Australians and their families", the Electrical Trades Union said that Labor's legislation is still worse than the previous Howard government's 1996 Workplace Relations Act.

While offering some improvements, most of the anti-worker and anti-union provisions of the Howard government's 2006 Work Choices legislation are still imbedded in the new laws.

For example, the Fair Work Act retains highly discriminatory laws targeting building workers and still prohibits industry wide, or "pattern", bargaining.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.