28/09/2004 - 22:00

Labor threat to AWAs

28/09/2004 - 22:00


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Even though Labor has not released its industrial relations policy, rumours are rife among employers that Australian Workplace Agreements will be abolished. Mark Beyer and Julie-anne Sprague investigate.

Labor threat to AWAs

Even though Labor has not released its industrial relations policy, rumours are rife among employers that Australian Workplace Agreements will be abolished. Mark Beyer and Julie-anne Sprague investigate.


Chamber of Commerce and Industry of WA chief executive John Langoulant believes one issue stands above all others in the coming federal election, and that is industrial relations.

He reckons the Labor Party’s plans, which include abolishing Australian Workplace Agreements, or individual agreements, would have a serious impact, particularly in WA.

“In recent years, the availability of the more flexible AWAs has underpinned the business growth and success of WA firms, including those in the State’s thriving resource sector and export industries,” Mr Langoulant said.

He said AWAs were the main alternative to industrial awards and used more widely in WA than in any other State.

Mr Langoulant said Labor would increase the level of industrial regulation, bolster the power of trade unions and add more costs to employers.

His comments reflect widespread disquiet in the business community about Labor’s industrial relations plans.

Australia Mines and Metals Association chief executive Steve Knott described Labor’s plans as a disastrous “u-turn” in policy making.

“The labour market has changed dramatically over the past 10 years,” Mr Knott said.

“Trying to go back to a centralised wage fixing system, with more power to the commission and to unions, is not the way to go.”

Labor’s workplace relations spokesman Craig Emerson insists the fears are misplaced, saying Labor will not wind back the clock with heavy-handed re-regulation.

“We have released our policy and we think its fair, we think its flexible, we think its modern,” Mr Emerson said.

He said a Labor government introduced enterprise bargaining, marking the first major step away from the old system of centralised industrial awards, and that collective agreements would be central to wage fixing under a Labor government.

That is little comfort to employers who prefer the flexibility of individual agreements.

Tourism Council WA president Ron Buckey said his industry would be severely hit if AWAs were abolished.

“A lot of people particularly in medium-sized businesses went on to Australian Workplace Agreements when the State agreements were abolished,” he said.

“Taking it away will have an enormous impact to the industry and it is a great concern to us and we have raised it with Kerry O’Brien [Opposition spokesman for Tourism].”

Mr Buckey said the tourism industry needed the flexibility AWAs provided. He said businesses were not trying to avoid paying correct wages.

“People in the tourism industry operate businesses that run 24 hours a day, seven days a week and people have to expect differing hours. The industry is very nervous at the moment,” he said.

“You are already seeing the effects of that where some coffee shops increase the price of coffee on the weekends by 10 per cent.”

Australian Hotels Association WA executive director Bradley Woods said scrapping AWAs would not prove too large an issue for the State’s hotels.

“There would be a reasonable number of hotels that would have to restructure their arrangements and it does remove flexibility,” Mr Woods said.

“In terms of the exact impact though it’s difficult to say because we don’t know how many have taken them up.”

Mr Woods said he was continuing discussions with the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union about gaining better outcomes in the hotel and tavern workers’ award.

“We’re in the process of working with the union to gain further flexibility that will address some things that the AWAs cover,” he said.

Mr Emerson said existing AWAs would stay in place until they matured, normally after three years.

He said Labor would ensure there was a workable system of collective non-union agreements.

In particular, such agreements would be accepted if they were backed by a simple majority (50 per cent plus one) of workers.

Mr Emerson said Labor would adopt a ‘light touch’ approach in areas such as encouraging casual employees to convert to permanent employment. He said similar provisions already existed in 31 federal awards.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Party’s industrial relations policy proposes a series of relatively minor changes to improve current arrangements.

This includes providing $2 million to establish a pilot mediation program to help small business solve disputes and $12 million to the Office of the Employment Advocate to simplify the processing of AWAs and to promote its services to small businesses.



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