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The pendulum swings

Australian Democrats Workplace Relations Spokesperson senator Andrew Murray examines the new WA Industrial Relations Bill

Six industrial relations systems for 19 million Australians – but just one IR system is needed. Unfortunately, this goal is strongly resisted by powerful vested interests like those of the Chamber of Commerce & Industry WA. So we are stuck with a confusing State/federal mix.

So what are we to make of the latest WA proposals? The Industrial Relations Act 1979 that the Labour Relations Reform Bill 2002 seeks to amend was itself heavily amended when the Liberal/National Coalition controlled both houses in the WA Parliament. Those amendments weighted the balance of law to favour the interests of employers. As a consequence, WA IR law became much tougher than the federal law. Now the pendulum will swing back.

The new Bill provides for a more comprehensive safety net, making it easier to establish new awards in industries where they don’t currently exist. “Default awards” will apply, unless parties can show why there should not be an award.

Many existing state awards won’t change. Many workers are paid well above the award rate, especially those in professional and managerial positions. However, for some – especially the low-paid, the changes will make a big difference. And for some industries there will be increased union muscle and activity concerning wages and conditions.

The new Bill boosts the Minimum Conditions of Employment Act 1993 and it increases scrutiny of individual contracts.

Individual employees and employers will still be able to make individual agreements, but only where a collective enterprise agreement does not exist. This individual agreements area would benefit from harmonisation with federal law.

In addition, the Western Australian Industrial Relations Commission will be a stronger umpire than it presently is. The commission’s job will be to settle disputes, facilitate award-making and collective agreements, and oversee bargaining “in good faith”. “Good faith” is a common contractual device. Used with good intent it is facilitative. If abused, it is destructive.

Employers will fear the latter. This is where an independent adjudicating commission is essential.

The new Bill introduces bargaining measures that will restrain employer bullies. Does it do enough about union bullies? The danger with some of the contentious “right of entry” provisions and the cowardly failure to ensure enforceable freedom of association provisions, is that some will take advantage. That a union official can enter a workplace and inspect records without having any union members working there rightly infuriates employers. It should rather be the task of the department’s inspectorate to check on employers.

The wisest course would be to harmonise state right of entry provisions to the federal practices, particularly on registration matters. Then there would be no switching between jurisdictions or confusion over procedures.

Unfortunately, the Bill does not fix the problem of unfair “youth” rates. Basing wages around outmoded definitions of youth for those aged 18 to 25 is discriminatory. The Bill should be amended to remove youth wages for adults aged 18 years or over, replacing them, where a case exists, with a skills-based wage.

Nowadays, balancing work and family is an important workplace concern. Options like permanent part-time work, flexible leave arrangements, the chance to work from home and paid maternity leave are being adopted by employers who wish to retain the growing proportion of active parents.

Federally, awards have been simplified and made more user-friendly. The redundant third of federal awards has been replaced by rationalised workable awards. So why not do the same at the state level?

WA state awards are hopelessly outdated and many are almost impossible to comply with. A section in the Bill deals with award modernisation on a limited scale. The Bill should introduce the federal twenty allowable matters restrictions, as they have been a great success.

It is important to note that most unfair-dismissal applications are made at state level. Why not harmonise unfair dismissal provisions with federal law to improve process and practice?

This Bill needs thorough review by an Upper House Committee in the WA Parliament. Unless the review produces real improvements, the new law will still lack the balance, efficiency and effectiveness that is needed.

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