05/10/2004 - 22:00

IR getting lost in AWA debate

05/10/2004 - 22:00

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Last week I was taken to task by some readers over our coverage of Federal Labor’s plans to abolish Australian Workplace Agreements.

Last week I was taken to task by some readers over our coverage of Federal Labor’s plans to abolish Australian Workplace Agreements.

Part of the problem with our story stemmed from a secondary heading on the story which suggested that Labor’s plans were “rumoured” when in fact they are actually policy.

It was a mistake which should not have got to publication.

That error may well have provided fuel to those who felt it gave undue weight to AWAs in the context of Australian industrial relations.

Obviously much of that criticism came from the Labor camp.

One senior Labor official suggested that only 3 per cent of workers would be affected by the abolition of AWAs, making it a minor issue.

But of course statistics work both ways and I have noticed on this subject how hard it is to get a precise picture of the numbers involved.

Even more importantly, business doesn’t dismiss this as a minor issue, they see it as a major one, especially in Western Australia.

One reason for its high profile in WA is the role of AWAs in the mining industry.

Mining is one of two sectors where employees on AWAs outnumber those covered by union certified agreements or enterprise bargaining agreements, according to the website of the Federal Government’s Office of the Employment Advocate (which would also be abolished under a Labor government).

According to that site, 19,800 people have signed AWAs in the past two years against 16,000 on union certified agreements.

Much of growth in AWAs has occurred in WA during the past two years as employers have sought a transition from State workplace agreements abolished after the Gallop Government took power.

More than 4,000 AWAs a month have been signed in WA during the past financial year to total more than 46,000.

This is not minor, especially when put in the context of the mining industry – the acknowledged lifeblood of the State and nation. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics the mining community in Australia employed about 67,000 people in 2001. Depending on the level of employment growth it is likely more than a quarter of these people are on AWAs.

In August 2000, the ABS suggested union membership in the mining industry was 32 per cent.

The long-term decline of union membership in Australia would support evidence from the OEA that less than a quarter of employees in the mining sector were union members.

Despite the rise of AWAs and the decline of unionism in that sector no-one – publicly at least – is proposing to abolish unions in mining regions. It certainly isn’t Liberal policy and there would be uproar if it was.

Moving on from the statistics, even the conservative side of politics thinks the issue of industrial relations has been wrongly sidetracked by the AWA debate.

For instance, the WA Chamber of Commerce and Industry believes the abolition of AWAs would be a setback for business but remonstrates with the Federal Liberals for failing to do more to improve other parts of our creaking and antiquated industrial relations system.

They point to industrial awards which often carry a century’s worth of negotiated baggage far removed from what modern employees need or want.

I recall a round table discussion held at WA Business News about two years ago when even the union representatives at the table agreed that awards needed serious modernising to make them relevant to today’s environment.

I have seen no evidence of any change in that respect.

Having said all of that, the State Government should be applauded for taking steps to smooth the approvals process for resources development in WA.

Last week, the Minister for State Development Clive Brown announced he was establishing a Projects Approval Coordination Unit in line with the recommendations of the Keating Review of the Project Development Approvals System.

Mr Brown made the announcement on site at BHP Billiton’s Ravensthorpe Nickel Project, which is one of the wins his Government has notched up during the past four years.

The issue of the approvals process was a major one at a recent mining forum WA Business News hosted and we made it a front-page issue only two weeks ago, so we are glad to see the voice of the resources industry being heeded.

Of course, the move comes well after the Keating Review’s release – a point not lost on industry group the Australian Petroleum Producers and Explorers Association in its response.

Australia Petroleum Production and Exploration Association also suggested it would be best if such a unit was adequately resourced to the job it has been charged with.

Perhaps a good example of where a properly mandated such whole-of-government approaches can work is the East Perth Development Authority.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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