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“Workchoices” and Industrial Relations

February 5th, 2007

In 2006 the Howard Government in Australia passed the Workchoices Bill which significantly altered most of the provisions governing employment and not least the extent to which unions would be involved. In part this reflected the government’s paranoia about unions and their impact on all domains, including universities where even student unions have been banned. But principally the legislation determined the relations between employer and employee. To those supporting the legislation the changes were promoted as increasing employment and productivity. Those opposing the changes believed it significantly eroded rights established over more than a century and made possible disruption of family life through the ability of employers to require employees to report for work at almost any time at short notice.

The legislation was tested in the High Court in late 2006 by all the States and the ACTU. The Court found the Government was entitled to use the provisions of Corporations Law to effect the changes of the Workchoices legislation. The implication is that the Commonwealth is able to apply sweeping powers to almost every area of activity in the States, even to the conduct of school boards. Professor Greg Craven of Curtin University is amongst a number of people who have spoken strongly on several occasions about the implications of the High Court’s decision.

In the early stages of the debate about the changes, the two sides took issue about the existing situation in workplaces, the need for “flexibility” and the impact of unions through restrictive practices which were alleged to limit the employer in dismissing workers and forced the payment of wage rates which diminished the opportunity of the employer to hire more employees and so on.

The literature on this subject is vast. Three articles which I wrote dealt with some of the issues, starting with the unsubstantiated assertions derived from a consultants report commissioned by the Business Council of Australia. Links to the three articles together with the first several paragraphs are below.

What price economic growth and progress? Taylorism revisited

On Line Opinion, 14 September 2004

“Older people remember the Charlie Chaplin film, “Modern Times”, Chaplin emerging from a manhole with a red flag to unknowingly lead a march of striking workers. It is easy to think we are not much further advanced in our understanding of industrial relations, getting a productive and satisfying workplace and intersection of work with life.

“In July the Business Council of Australia (BCA) released a report commissioned from Access Economics. It asserted that the ALP Industrial Relations Policy had negative economic consequences: the interventions proposed would mean significant losses of jobs. Access Economics’ Report assumes that present economic wellbeings are due to the application of recent workplace reforms including particularly individual agreements on wages…”


Workplace reform: inequity, more stress, less choice On Line Opinion Monday, 7 November 2005

The Howard Government’s industrial relations-workplace reforms commenced their progress as legislation through the Federal Parliament on Wednesday, November 2. Among the benefits claimed for them are more jobs, greater choice for employees and higher wages. And a multitude of workplace arrangements in the various states will be brought together, tidied up. Up to $40 million of our money has been spent just in promoting these benefits and countering the seemingly effective union campaign against the changes.

But the evidence for benefits resulting from the changes is absent or at most weak and there is little doubt the costs will be high. Of most concern is that, in fact, investment in training and development, creative structuring of work, higher than average wages and opportunities for collective bargaining all produce higher productivity, attract business investment and generate employment: facts shown by two recent major reports.

Howard’s changes have been attacked by labour economists, industrial relations experts and distinguished members of the judiciary. “Market” economists and analysts point out the changes do not address major workplace issues. Church leaders oppose the changes as having potentially deleterious impact on families. Economic and general commentators have pointed out errors in the claims and how the reforms will inevitably trade off less recreation and family life for what will turn out to be small gains in wages. All Andrews, Howard and their supporters have done is repeat the mantra.

“How to Wreck a Working Nation” New Matilda Tuesday 12 July 2005

“The Howard Government ‘reforms’ to workplace relations will cost the community dearly and achieve next to nothing for employment or productivity. Genuine leadership and investment in people would. The Government should play a different role and address the complexity of the issues in the long-term.

“Employer groups, especially the Australian Chamber of Commerce & Industry (’ACCI’), in endorsing these reforms, talk of increased opportunities, greater flexibility, higher productivity and more jobs. The present system they say, particularly ‘unfair dismissal’ provisions, frustrates employers in their efforts to increase productivity.

Those opposing the changes are addressing different consequences…”

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