Reith's individual contract con

August 13, 1997

James Vassilopoulos

Secret Australian Workplace Agreements (individual contracts) obtained by the Australian Centre for Industrial Relations and Training (ACIRT) debunk industrial relations minister Peter Reith's claim that no worker would be disadvantaged by signing an individual contract.

One AWA ruled out all wage increases for the three-year life of the agreement and enabled ordinary working hours to apply on any day at any time. Another AWA had no provision for overtime payments, an hourly rate which included all overtime and penalty payments, and also enabled ordinary hours to apply on any day at any time.

AWAs are examined by the Office of the Employment Advocate to ensure that they meet the "no-disadvantage test". The OEA does not have the power to refuse an individual contract. It can only refer the AWA to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. So far, the OEA has not referred one AWA to the AIRC.

The no-disadvantage test does not prevent cuts to workers' wages and conditions. First, the test only applies to overall terms and conditions "on balance", and conditions can be traded for temporary wage increases, which can then be reduced later.

Secondly, the test does not apply to over-award payments or conditions. Currently, 60% of employees under federal coverage are covered by collective enterprise agreements. For these workers the no-disadvantage test is irrelevant because it does not apply to enterprise agreements.

Third, if the bosses succeed with their case currently before the AIRC to gut awards, the no-disadvantage test will apply only to the minimal new award provisions.

Up to June 5, the OEA was processing AWAs covering 1168 employees from 62 companies; 345 AWAs have been approved.

Of the 10 AWAs obtained by the ACIRT, at least five are believed to have been approved by the OEA. From its analysis of these AWAs, the ACIRT concludes, among other things, that AWAs are mainly about increasing the flexibility of labour; that they tend to cover casual employees, who are often in a weak bargaining position; and that the majority have no clauses about training and occupational health and safety.

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