Australian industrial relations still short of real flexibility and choice

The Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) considers that the Australian Labor Party’s (ALP) revised industrial relations policy announced August 28 represents an important shift in the ALP’s preparedness to accommodate the minerals industry’s primary requirement for a modern and progressive industrial relations system, but still falls short on real flexibility and choice. MCA Chief Executive, Mitchell H. Hooke, said, “the ALP has been consulting with business on statutory individual contracts, right of entry provisions, industrial action and compliance measures. Notwithstanding that the ALP has gone to considerable lengths to address the industry’s concerns about ‘backsliding’ on two decades of workplace relations reforms, the ALP policy will limit choice and flexibility in the full range of employment instruments – critical to cater for the vast operational diversity across the industry and to the modern workplace culture of collaborative, direct, mutually beneficial, employer/employee relationships.

“The ALP policy represents important movement but falls well short in the industry’s fundamental requirement for an appropriate substitute for the abolition of Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs). We do not consider, as an appropriate substitute for AWAs, Labor’s proposal for employees earning over A$100,000 to have access to individual common law contracts that are not subjugated by Awards but are subject to Labor’s safety net test of ‘10 employment standards’ and ‘10 additional Award provisions’.

“On a matter of principle – it compromises access to the full range of employment instruments and introduces an arbitrary demarcation, in effect creating two classes of employees, risking a return to conflict, undermining the hard-won culture of collaboration in workplace relationships. On a matter of practicality – this arbitrary demarcation is accentuated by the A$100,000 threshold – it is way too high to accommodate key operatives in the minerals industry who want, individual employment contracts – nearly two-thirds of industry employees would fall short of the threshold and have access only to common law contracts underpinned by Awards restricting flexibility and choice.

“The ALP’s proposal of a substitute for AWAs remains a key point of difference between us. Although we have yet to fully consider the detail, we are encouraged by other key aspects of the ALP’s policy, specifically its commitments relating to:

  • Preventing unauthorised access to the workplace in maintaining the existing right of entry provisions which prohibit any uninvited role of unions and other external third parties
  • Maintaining the existing anti-strike provisions prohibiting industrial action during the course of an agreement, restricted to those involved in negotiating an agreement and to matters under negotiation in an agreement, and appropriate sanctions for illegitimate, unprotected industrial action
  • Outlawing of secondary boycotts under the Trade Practices Act
  • Ensuring freedom to determine whether to, or not to, collectively bargain, the right to belong or not to belong to a union, and the right to choose or refuse to be represented by unions in any negotiations
  • Maintaining the Australian Building and Construction Commission, though we reject the ‘transitional basis’ to that policy position
  • Recognising the commercial and contractual requirements of observing existing AWAs and in providing a 5-year transitional arrangement, notwithstanding that we oppose such transition
  • ‘Award modernisation’ increasing flexibility, notwithstanding the enormity of this task – there are some 4,000 Awards with in excess of 100,000 employment classifications – and the undesirable prospect of increased union involvement through the “back door” via negotiations on Award changes.

“Over two decades of reform by both Labor and Coalition Governments have emphasised the steady decentralisation and reorientation of Australia’s industrial relations system to the individual, the individual enterprise, and flexibility and choice in workplace arrangements.

Australia cannot afford any ‘backsliding’ in workplace reform. If the Australian minerals industry is to fully capitalise on the strongest global market growth in a generation, investing with confidence, increasing productivity, and ensuring international competitiveness, it must have access to the full range of employment instruments, including statutory individual contracts underpinned by an effective safety net.

“We are encouraged by the changes announced to the ALP’s industrial relations policy and we will continue to engage with the ALP for even further movement so that there is real flexibility and choice in the full range of employment instruments underpinned by a socially and economically effective safety net.”