Two labour law reforms for more secure work

March 9, 2012
Victorian nurses campaigning at Alfred hospital to protect wages and conditions. Photo: ANF Respect our work/Facebook

Workers and their unions need strong labour law reforms. Two of many changes I urge can be adopted by the Independent Inquiry into Insecure Work in Australia and the federal government’s Fair Work Act Review are:

1. Amend the Fair Work Act to repeal the penal powers and have an effective right to strike.

2. Amend the Fair Work Act to restrict casual and other forms of precarious work to a limited period. Then require employment contracts for ongoing, more permanent work. Fair Work Australia should have the power to order the transition to more secure employment contracts.

The right to strike

I submit the lawful strike is essential for collective bargaining. Work Choices’ repressive provisions with unfair sanctions against industrial action were kept in the Fair Work Act. All penal sanctions have to be repealed for an effective collective bargaining system for workers.

Only with workers’ ability to bargain with protected action — without being ordered back to work and suffering penalties — can their unions be able to respond to the precarious work in capitalist labour relations.

The international capitalist crisis is worsening, putting more pressure on businesses to move to precarious and exploitative work.

It is essential for working people that the Fair Work Act be amended to protect the right to strike to balance the more powerful corporate and government forces.

I argue all sanctions should be removed for the protection of workers and their unions. All of the existing provisions from the earlier Workplace Relations Act and Work Choices still in the current repressive regime against strikes should be deleted, as well as those in other laws such as the Trade Practices Act and the Crimes Act.

Such amendments are vital for the far too many employees in non-standard precarious work.

I urge the repeal of the Australian Building and Construction Improvement Act and the ABCC’s functions and powers, which should not be replaced with the current amendments before parliament that have no merit.

Instead, a broad legal protection — a firewalling — of all forms of industrial action should be inserted.

At a minimum, commonly accepted International Labour Organisation (ILO) principles that require protecting the right to strike should be implemented. The history of such ILO principles and their non-application by Australia is well known in the industrial relations and labour law community.

Furthermore, as a result of the Qantas lockout, the employer should be denied this bargaining weapon. The provisions allowing lockouts in the Fair Work Act should be deleted.

Industrial relations specialists, labour law academics, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and other unions have raised much criticism of the Fair Work Act’s failure to protect the right to strike.

Firewalling the right to strike is necessary for parliament to accept as it is essential that workers have some power to pursue strategies for secure jobs during this capitalist crisis.

Job security

Millions of Australian workers have daily adverse experiences in precarious work.

A key amendment would be to restrict casual employment to only short periods, such as four hours daily and no more than fortnightly. Then include a provision that compels employers to move employees from casual work to more permanent, ongoing employment contracts.

Such a provision would give precarious workers bargaining rights to change to secure employment. When workers are able to reach an agreement, they could then access conciliation and arbitration from Fair Work Australia, which could pass orders for steps to more secure work.

The same process would apply to ending many short-term contracts. After two short term contracts, the employer would be required to move employees to more permanent, ongoing contracts.

A special focus of such a change would be to support the right of any employee with long service — for example, more than seven years — to be placed on a permanent contract. As well, an existing employee with 10 years to go before retirement would also have the right to a permanent contract. Employees in other non-standard employment sectors, such as disabled services, would be similarly protected.

The next reform would be to ensure that labour-hire contract provisions are not attractive to employers for lowering costs. The aim would be to have protections for precarious work in the labour-hire industry. Such provisions would ensure the same wages and conditions for labour hire workers as apply in similar work.

The law should ensure employees are hired permanently for not less than two years. Provisions for transition and compliance need to be put in place.

Then the unfair dismissal section of the Fair Work Act could be amended so that the right to job security applies to all employees, irrespective of the employee’s status or contract of employment or the size of the employer’s workforce.

I urge strengthened redundancy provisions in a new minimum entitlement — three months’ notice and one month’s pay for each year of service for redundant employees. This job security measure would deter employers from making employees redundant and help redundant employees in this recessionary period.

I also urge support for the ACTU community campaign for secure jobs.

Other countries are making attempts to provide greater protection for their employees, such as new labour laws in China grappling with capitalism’s insecure work.

[Chris White is the former secretary of the United Trades and Labour Council of South Australia. He lives in Darwin. Visit his blog Chris White online.]

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