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Laws trigger Federal flight

WESTERN Australian businesses are still fleeing the State industrial relations system 12 months after the WA Government introduced its IR reforms.

About one third of the Australian Workplace Agreements – the Federal version of the old WA workplace agreements – registered in Australia in the past year have been from WA.

Several industrial agents have told WA Business News that the bulk of their work in the past few months has been preparing either Federal non-union collective bargaining agreements or AWAs.

Union and employer groups says the Federal flight has been the biggest impact of the new State IR laws so far, although some sources say it is too early for their full effect to be felt because unions are yet to use all of the weapons they have been given access to.

The new laws were supposed to put the emphasis on collective agreements but WA Industrial Relations Commission statistics show that in the 12 months from August 1 2002 there have been 234 new enterprise bargaining agreements registered, compared with 277 new EBAs registered in the previous 12 months and 332 in the year from August 1 2000.

From the small business perspective, the award modernisation process that Consumer and Employment Protection Minister John Kobelke promised has been going too slowly, and the much vaunted Employer-Employee Agreements have proved so difficult to implement that only 49 have been registered.

This compares with an average 3,300 AWAs from WA registered each month.

One IR lawyer ran a successful appeal against the commission’s decision to reject some EEAs he had put up for a client. It has been nearly a year and the commission is yet to reconsider them.

Some IR law experts have suggested that the Government set up the EEAs in such a way that it would be too difficult for most businesses to get them registered.

Mr Kobelke denied that EEAs had been set up to fail.

“They were set up to ensure that people were not forced down to standards that are unacceptable,” Mr Kobelke said.

He blamed the lack of take-up of EEAs on the fact that groups such as the Chamber of Commerce and Industry were not pushing them as they had done with the old workplace agreements.

He said the Gallop Government had also removed the prohibitions the previous government had put on businesses access to the Federal system.

There have been some inroads made into awards modernisation with at least six updated awards going through the commission. A further 50 are understood to be waiting in the wings.

Some of those proposed new awards are understood to cover metal trades, building trades and hospitality workers. Those three sectors account for between 15 and 20 per cent of the WA workforce.

However, the award modernisation process is proving to be a long and arduous one. One award, covering salaried private school teachers, took 12 months of negotiation.

Unions WA secretary Stephanie Mayman said there was “no doubt the union movement had taken on award updating”.

“Some major awards are ready to go through to the commission,” she said.

Motor Trades Association chief executive Peter Fitzpatrick said his organisation had been working for some time to update the service station award and create a motor industry award.

“Unions are dragging their feet on this,” he said.

Mr Fitzpatrick said his organisation had even tried discussing enterprise bargaining agreements with the unions covering the sector but found that they offered no more flexibility than was available in the outdated awards.

“I guess, at the end of the day, the commission is going to have to make a decision on these awards,” he said.

Things such as right of entry and the controversial good faith bargaining provisions that allow either side of an industrial dispute to force a WAIRC-arbitrated outcome have not proved to be the bogeys they were made out to be at this stage.

The controversial good faith bargaining provisions appear to have proved successful in forcing parties to negotiate agreements.

Industrial lawyer Derek Schapper said the new laws had allowed more agreements to be struck between employers and employees.

He said the fact that the “threat” of an arbitrated outcome existed in the good faith bargaining provisions forced both parties to actually negotiate in good faith.

WAIRC records show that there have been seven applications for enterprise orders in the commission, however the bulk of them have been discontinued.

The Master Builders Association is in the midst of using the good faith bargaining provisions to sort out a dispute between the Shopfitters Association and the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union over an enterprise bargaining agreement for the shopfitters’ sector.

MBA industrial relations manager Kim Richardson said he believed the terms of any deal the commission arbitrated would be more favourable than those on the table from the CFMEU.

Ms Mayman said a group of unions was also on the verge of seeking an enterprise order through the commission.

Right of entry, another major concern before the laws came in, has not been the problem employer groups such as the CCI suggested it would be.

While there has been talk of some increased industrial activity at the big end of town, aside from in the commercial construction industry there has been little else to report.

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