Our rights at work: Where the bloody hell are they?

If Lewis Carroll's Alice were to suddenly come to life in Australia today, there's one place she find familiar — the Wonderland world of industrial relations minister Julia Gillard's Fair Work Act (FWA).

In the face of solidly based claims from unions, like the southern states branch of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU), that this act violates International Labour Organisation conventions, her department repeats: "the Australian Government gave due consideration to its international obligations in developing the Fair Work Bill and is confident the Bill gives effect to Australia's commitments under ratified ILO conventions", according to a March 30 Workplace Express article.

As the Queen of Hearts told Alice, "There's no doubt about it. And the reason is … because I say so, that's why!"

Yet the FWA continues the wave of violations of worker and union rights that began with the Howard government's 1996 Workplace Relations Act and was revved up by the hated Work Choices.

It retains key features of this putrid anti–worker legislation. These include restrictions on the right to take industrial action, restrictions on the rights of unions to organise and enter work sites, prohibition of pattern bargaining, restrictions on the content of industrial agreements and compulsory arbitration on the say-so of the minister.

Most blatantly of all, in its anxiety to keep the construction bosses on side, Labor isn't getting rid of the Australian Building and Construction Commission. A rejigged ABCC is to be integrated as a specialist division into Labor's proposed industrial relations umbrella, Fair Work Australia.

The latest ILO report on Australian industrial relations law, by its Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations, directly called on the Rudd government to "eliminate any excessive impediments, penalties and sanctions against industrial action in the building and construction industry", and to eliminate the power of the ABCC to interfere in internal union affairs and jail those who refuse to provide evidence.

The committee also calls on the Rudd government to formally send it a copy of the FWA so that it can assess whether it complies with ILO conventions. Throughout the entire process of negotiating with the "stakeholders" over the content of the bill, Rudd and Gillard refused to send a copy to the ILO, repeating the tactic of the Howard government when its lawyers drafted Work Choices.

Yet the Rudd government isn't going to get away easily with maintaining its Queen of Hearts because-I-say-so tactic about the FWA. Word is already getting out that Labor and Liberal senators voted together to kill Greens' amendments guaranteeing that the law would be ILO-compliant.

The southern states ETU has forwarded a formal complaint to the ILO about the FWA, a complaint the government is required to respond to next month.

Across the union movement, even in conservative unions, the FWA is already known simply as "Work Choices lite". This is despite the best efforts of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) leadership of Jeff Lawrence and Sharan Burrow to spin the legislation as "ending Work Choices" in a video on YouTube sent out to all unions and Your Rights at Work groups and supporters the day after the bill became law.

Detailed exposure of the FWA and the hypocritical gobbledegook of Gillard's office, and her supporters in the union movement, can be found on such sites as the ETU's Fair Work site http://www.fairwork.org.au and on union law researcher Chris White's blog http://chriswhiteonline.org.

The Socialist Alliance is preparing a range of printed and video materials explaining exactly what the FWA means for workers. Our union members shall also be looking to collaborate with all other progressive forces in the trade union movement to develop a platform of demands for the ACTU to present to the Rudd government.

At its June congress, the Australian union movement's peak body will have to decide which side it is really on: the Rudd government or the working people.

In the meantime, the construction industry unions must keep up the industrial and protest heat until the ABCC is history, as well as using the tactic of refusing to cooperate with the ABCC — successfully used by Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union official Noel Washington.

And as long as the ABCC still exists, the construction industry unions should deduct all fines imposed by the ABCC from their contributions to the ALP, the party that has lumbered Australian workers with Work Choices lite.

[Margarita Windisch is the Victorian trade union co-ordinator of the Socialist Alliance.]

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