Fair Work Bill: 'nothing but a con job'

March 14, 2009

The Australian Financial Review doesn't mince words, nor does it try to conceal reality from its readership.

Its March 10 headline, "Labor gives ground on IR reform", is a thumbs up from big business and re-confirms what militant unionists have been saying all along: Labor never intended to rip up Work Choices but planned to absorb the essence of the anti-worker laws into its new industrial relations regime, Fair Work Australia.

The government's latest raft of pro-employer amendments to the Fair Work Bill (FWB) indicate that Labor is only too willing to make major concessions to industry.

While the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) is waxing lyrical about the FWB turning the tide in favour of workers, the 100,000-member strong Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union is taking the Rudd government to the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

According to Dean Mighell, Victorian branch secretary of the Electrical Trades Union, quoted in the March 12 Age, key areas of the FWB breach numerous ILO conventions, including restrictions imposed on the right to take industrial action and the curtailment of unionist rights to organise and enter work sites.

Mighell said that the amendments to the legislation would make "poor laws 'even worse'" and that the union movement had been "outmanoeuvered" by business.

The ETU Victorian branch also claims that the notoriously anti-union Workplace Relations Act, introduced by the Howard government in 1996, was in fact less anti-worker in a range of aspects than Labor's bill.

Tim Gooden, Geelong and Region Trades and Labour Council secretary, agrees. "The ALP promised to get rid of the Work Choices laws and the Australian Building and Construction Commission and the unions expected the laws to return to at least the 1996 IR act.

"Instead, PM Kevin Rudd and workplace relations minister Julia Gillard ignored the party platform and introduced a new system that still favoured the bosses — Work Choices lite. Workers will still be worse off under these laws", Gooden told Green Left Weekly.

Joan Doyle, Victorian state secretary of the Communication Workers Union, has also voiced her disappointment. One of her major concerns is the unfair dismissal provisions in the bill. Under the FWB's provisions, employees of workplaces with 15 or more staff can only access unfair dismissal protection if they have worked at the business for at least six months — or one year for businesses with less than 15 employees.

Workers are given only seven days to file for unfair dismissal, although this can be extended. The bill also establishes a "Fair Dismissal Code", which outlines certain procedures that will exempt small businesses from unfair dismissal claims.

"People are still human beings, no matter if they work for a boss with 15 or less employees. It is simply outrageous to give people such little time to assert their rights if they have been unjustly treated", Doyle told GLW. She also said that the fact that the family provisions in the bill are unenforceable shows it is "nothing but a con job".

The Australian Greens intend to move a series of amendments to the bill when it is debated in the Senate over the coming week. "This bill is an improvement on Work Choices, but also keeps many elements of the Howard laws. The Greens will be working to ensure that workers' rights are properly protected", Greens leader Bob Brown said on March 9.

The Greens' motions would strengthen protection for workers. These include providing Fair Work Australia with broader powers to protect workers from unfair dismissals and to resolve workplace disputes; allowing any matters, including environmental matters, to be included in bargaining; providing equal protection against unfair dismissal; strengthening paid leave for mothers and fathers, and more.

While, on March 9, Brown committed the party to passing the Bill, regardless of whether its amendments were accepted, the Greens position appeared to strengthen on March 10. "The government should not rely on the Greens' unwavering support on this bill — we have concerns over several aspects of the government's approach and will be seeking amendments to better protect employees", Greens IR spokesperson Rachel Siewert said.

While supporting the Greens' amendments, Gooden felt that the changes needed to go further. He told GLW that the laws were based on corporations law and transfer union rights to the individual. This severely weakens unions' ability to organise the unorganised. "This is what Howard intended with Work Choices and it is what we still have.

"Gillard told the ACTU in December that the government will revisit IR laws for the next 10 years. The unions will have to do a lot more than just whine loudly and lobby quietly in order to change the government's position. It's time to return to the streets and finish the campaign to get rid of anti-union laws", he said.

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