Australia's new controversial workplace regulations come into effect this week

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Australian Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Kevin Andrews

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has urged the federal opposition Labor Party to focus on industrial relations (IR) as significant changes come into force from Monday 27th March. The legislation was passed in a row of controversy by parliament in December last year.

The contentious WorkChoices measures aim to move workers onto a federal industrial relations system and increase to the use of individual workplace contracts - under which conditions such as overtime and penalty rates can be set. The new WorkChoices arrangements include scrapping of unfair dismissal rights; the control by Federal government over state-based IR systems; more encouragement of individual contracts; award-cutting of award rates; secret ballots for industrial action and removal of the no-disadvantage test in new contracts.

The union movement has launched a fresh campaign to protest this week's changes. ACTU secretary Greg Combet warns that some employees will feel the effects as soon as they come into force, because they will no longer be protected by the previous unfair dismissal laws. He says with the changes becoming enforced this week, the Federal opposition party must now concentrate on industrial relations and not on "political infighting".

Australia's Prime Minister, John Howard, says he's prepared for a union scare-mongering over the IR laws, but assumes the campaign will fail. "I predict the scare campaign will go on," he said. "I also predict that the scare campaign will fail." Mr Howard says workers should wait and experience the new system for themselves and that the changes will give workers greater flexibility. "Over time it will be beneficial," he said.

Greg Combet, Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions

Combet feels different about the effects. "It's likely, somewhere around Australia tomorrow, someone is going to be sacked unfairly and they'll be the first victim of the new laws," he told the ABC. "The really significant thing is that the balance of power in the workplace is shifting sharply to the business community, to the employer."

Federal Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews told reporters last week that "the sky would not fall, because people would go to work next Monday and not detect any difference." He described union protests as "hysterical outbursts". "There is nothing in this legislation that people need to worry about in the ordinary course," he said.

Despite the Howard government's increased majority in the Senate, the passing of bill has not been smooth. In November last year, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators rallied across the nation to express dissent of the IR legislation. Ex-Finance Minister, Senator Nick Minchin, said most Australians "violently disagree" with the recent IR changes and there was a real prospect that the High Court could overturn the Work Choices laws.

The HR Nicholls Society, described as one of Australia's most politically conservative organisations, has likened the new federal laws to the former Soviet system of "command and control." Society president Ray Evans says he does not like the centralised power being handed to the government under the changes, nor its encroachment on states' rights.

Evans says the myriad of complex new laws would create a system where "so-called IR professionals would stand to make a lot of money sorting through it... every economic decision has to go back to some central authority and get ticked off," he said . "There is a lot of that sort of attitude in this legislation and I think it is very unfortunate." Kemalex Plastics owner Richard Colebatch of the HR Nicholls Society said the changes are "very complicated for anybody to decipher... The professionals will spend a lot of money, the employers' money, working their way through the mire trying to create the new rules people are going to work towards."

November 05: 150,000 turnout for Protest in Melbourne

But the Prime Minister says "more jobs will be generated in the small business sector as a result of the removal of the absurd job-destroying unfair dismissal laws, and the greater flexibility for people to make workplace agreements at the enterprise level will lift productivity," he told reporters in Melbourne. "Sure some people will complain, but a lot of people will benefit through getting job opportunities. Young people, who will get an opportunity to put their step on the bottom rung of the ladder for the first time, will benefit enormously."

The Australian Medical Association (AMA) said WorkChoices regulations do not go far enough in clarifying who can legally issue medical certificates for sick leave. AMA vice-president Dr Choong-Siew Yong said WorkChoices regulations meant employers and employees faced uncertainty and confusion over sick leave.

"The regulations fail to acknowledge two very serious failings," Dr Yong said in a statement. "One, if people are seriously ill, they should be seeing their medical doctor. Two, opening up medical certification to a whole range of non-medical practitioners will make it difficult for employers to take sick leave seriously."

  Wikinews Australia has in-depth coverage of this issue: Australian industrial relations legislation, 2005