In the afterglow of saying sorry to the Stolen Generations, the federal Labor government introduced its first piece of industrial relations legislation into parliament on February 13 — the Workplace Relations Amendment Bill. While the government claims that this legislation is the first step in dismantling Work Choices, in fact, it will leave most of Work Choices intact.
The bill prohibits the making of new Australian Workplace Agreements (individual contracts). However, on the justification that many employers have based their financial projections on the retention of AWAs, the bill allows bosses who have as few as one employee signed-up to an AWA, to continue to use an AWA clone — known as the Interim Transitional Employment Agreement (ITEA) — until 2010.
The bill also leaves existing AWAs in place for the life of their agreements (up to the end of 2012), even where a worker may want to ditch the AWA for a collective agreement or award.
The bill introduces a new "no general disadvantage" test, to be applied to the new ITEAs. The test will be based on Labor's ten national employment standards, which will also be introduced with the amendment bill. The ten standards will only cover very basic rights such as minimum wages, hours of work, long-service leave, holiday leave and public holidays.
Labor's proposed disadvantage test is only slightly more stringent than the one that applied to AWAs from their introduction in 1996 until the enactment of the Work Choices legislation in 2006. It will not stop the slashing of penalty rates, leave loading, rest breaks and other entitlements, requiring only that a worker be adequately compensated for conditions given up, as if that were possible.
Labor's bill also contains a clause mandating the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to begin the process of "modernising our current complex award system and having modern simple awards to take us into the future", as Labor deputy PM and workplace relations minister Julia Gillard explained it on ABC TV's February 11 7.30 Report.
This "simplification" is a euphemism for stripping from awards hard-won conditions of employment in order to ensure "flexibility" and increased "productivity" for the benefit of employers. Workers will have to strike an enterprise bargain (or individual common law contract) with their bosses to protect conditions and will face massive pressure to trade-off conditions for pay increases.
The Coalition parties, under the direction of shadow workplace relations minister Julie Bishop, have indicated they will frustrate the passage of Labor's amendment bill in the Senate, where the Coalition will retain a majority until July. They have been particularly opposed to any scrapping of AWAs, and have promised to send the bill to the Senate industrial relations committee, slowing its passage until at least May.
The response from the ACTU and the government has been to call on the Coalition to respect the ALP's mandate to "abolish" Work Choices, and to demand that the legislation be passed quickly.
However, if the government were serious about abolishing AWAs as soon as possible, it could have backdated the abolition of AWAs in the legislation — in much the same way as the previous Howard government did when it introduced its phony "fairness test" for AWAs in June 2007. In Howard's legislation, all AWAs signed after May 7 were subject to the new "fairness test", even though the legislation was only passed in June.
The biggest flaw of the new bil — much vaunted in the media as the bill to "dismantle" Work Choices — is the fact that it leaves almost all of the provisions of Work Choices intact.
The bill will not amend the Howard government's legislation regarding unfair dismissals. Those employed in workplaces of less than 100, will still not be entitled to pursue an unfair dismissal claim if sacked.
Workers will have to wait for Labor's new IR system — due to be introduced in 2010 — for that, and even the promised new IR system will not restore the rights abolished by Work Choices. Instead, it will replace it with a very watered-down version of pre-Howard unfair dismissal legislation that will emphasise conciliation and only rarely offer unfairly sacked workers monetary compensation.
Even after the passage of Labor's amendment bill, union officials will still be subject to draconian right-of-entry laws, which massively restrict their access to workplaces. In fact, Labor has announced that it will keep the Work Choices legislation restricting right-of-entry, even in its "new" IR system after 2010.
Labor will also retain the requirement that unions organise a secret ballot before taking industrial action, during the two-year "transition" period and in its new IR system. Labor will also maintain $6600 fines against individuals who take "unauthorised" strike action (outside of an enterprise bargaining period), with higher fines applying to unions.
Labor is also planning to maintain the draconian Australian Building and Construction Commission, with its secret-police powers, until 2010 and then to simply incorporate it as a special body within Labor's proposed Fair Work Australia workplace "umpire".
On November 24, working people voted overwhelmingly for the abolition of Work Choices in all its forms. Federal ALP leader Kevin Rudd promised to do just that on numerous occasions prior to the federal election. But now that Labor has been elected, it has begun implementing its real agenda — not the "abolition" of Work Choices, but its replacement with "Work Choices lite".
The challenge now for organised labour is a stark one. If it is not to meekly accept the partial reforms offered by Labor, along with its award-stripping "simplification", the union movement must intensify its campaign — both political and industrial — that so successfully defeated the Howard government.
Howard's government may be gone, but Work Choices remains, and Labor will not remove it without a concerted application of massive and direct pressure in workplaces and on the streets.