Unfair work bill passes senate

March 21, 2009

The federal ALP government's Fair Work Bill passed through the Senate on March 20 after intense wheeling and dealing with Family First Senator Steve Fielding and independent Senator Nick Xenophon.

Fielding and Xenophon had supported the extension of the definition of small business under the bill to businesses employing 20 or more people. The ALP held out for 15, while the Coalition supported 25.

This relates to an important element of the legislation, which allows small businesses to sack workers without redress in the first 12 months of their employment.

The ALP claims this amounts to a "reintroduction" of unfair dismissal laws for Australian workers, after Work Choices abolished rights to appeal against unfair dismissal for workers employed by businesses of 100 workers or fewer.

At the eleventh hour, the ALP agreed to a transition period for the introduction of unfair dismissal legislation for small businesses.

In the transition period, employees of businesses with fewer than 100 staff can access unfair dismissal protection only after six months from July 1.

Those who work in businesses with fewer than 15 full-time staff will have unfair dismissal protection only after 12 months' employment.

After 18 months, businesses employing the equivalent of 15 workers — be they full-time, part-time or casual — will be defined as a "small business".

But if this was indeed a "Fair Work" bill, unfair dismissal laws would have been fully reinstated for all workers.

The Greens negotiated some small improvements to the bill. For example, the ALP has agreed to the right of workers who have children with disabilities to request flexible working arrangements.

The ALP has also agreed to a review of pay equity, individual flexibility at work and the right to request flexible working arrangements.

Workplace relations minister Julia Gillard claimed Work Choices was finally "buried" with passage of the bill through the Senate.

But the legislation still falls far short of "ripping up" Work Choices. Far from dismantling Work Choices, the bill merely tries to build on the same pro-business ideological basis upon which Howard's anti-worker legislation.

The bill also fails to enshrine the most basic of democratic rights for workers: the right to strike.

There are also still restrictions on industry-wide pattern bargaining and union right of entry to work sites.

The new legislation also failed to dismantle the Australian Building and Construction Commission, the secret police for the building industry established by the previous Howard government.

Unions must oppose this "unfair work bill" The struggle for workers' rights must continue.

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