Union takes loss and turns it into a victory

WA cleaners may have won a test-case industrial relations appeal last month but the real victors now appear to be the unions.

Even before the industry appeal against introducing “employee choice” into the Contract Cleaners Award was upheld, the WA Government had effectively rebutted the court’s decision by including employee choice in the areas of terms and conditions within its new industrial relations bill.

The cleaning industry was one of several sectors which was highlighted as likely to feel the impact of the removal of workplace agreements.

Security, retail shopping and restaurant-café industries were also expected to be hard hit by the changes, according to the latest report on workplace agreement statistics.

The report indicates that these industry classifications represent 52 per cent of all workplace agreements received by the Commissioner of Workplace Agreements office.

The Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers’ Union application to change the award was viewed as a major threat to cleaning firms as they are completely labour dependent, and marked the first time the guild had involved itself in industrial relations.

If the LHMW union had won the appeal it would have set a precedent that would have threatened other industrial awards too.

Master Cleaners Guild of WA executive director Ian Westoby said employee choice would give employees, not the employer, the right to dictate employment terms.

“We are totally opposed to the concept of persons applying for employment being given the opportunity to dictate the mechanism under which they will be employed,” Mr Westoby said.

“It is a basic right in our opinion that employers have freedom of choice as to which mechanism they chose to use with future potential employees.”

He believes the union deliberately targeted the cleaning industry because it was seen as a soft target ready to roll over as it had done in the past. But now the industry, having worn the $150,000 in legal fees used to win the case, is facing the reality that employee choice will still become part of the future industrial relations landscape with the Labor Government.

It could mean increases in cleaning service costs by up to 30 per cent which could be passed on to the clients. Around 80 per cent of a cleaner’s costs go towards covering labour costs while profit margins are between 3 per cent and 4 per cent.

“In our industry making changes in their biggest cost will have a huge impact. It’s instantaneous. It’s not something that rolls slowly through,” Mr Westoby said. Recovering those costs will not be that easy. You can’t just go to the client and say we want more money because our wages bill has gone up.”

The Property Council has backed the guild, sharing similar concerns. Property Council executive director Joe Lenzo believes costs for services in some properties would increase by more than 20 per cent in areas such as cleaning and security.

Debate on the Industrial Relations Reform Bill began anew in WA Parliament on Tuesday. If made law, the Bill will remove workplace agreements and replace them with them employee-employer agreements. Industrial relations experts believe the EEAs, to be underpinned by State Awards, will not provide the flexibility of workplace agreements.

Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Bruce Williams said the security guards outside late-night chemist shops would probably be the first jobs to go.

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