More questions than answers

Uncertain future for workers' rights in the Coalition's Improving the Fair Work Laws policy

Joan Lemaire
Senior Vice President

The Coalition has said it will improve the Fair Work Act by “promoting harmonious, sensible and productive bargaining”. Their proposals seek to limit the ability of union members to take protected action during enterprise bargaining. The policy states the Fair Work Commission must ensure “that genuine and meaningful talks have taken place at the workplace prior to authorising protected industrial action”.

Some employers delay or frustrate negotiations during enterprise bargaining. The Coalition’s policy seems to suggest that members would not be able to take action in these circumstances.

In terms of bargaining the Coalition states it will put “productivity back on the agenda by making sure it is actively and genuinely considered by workers and businesses”. The Coalition may seek to place restrictions on how the Fair Work Commission deals with, or defines “productivity”. The Coalition argues that some unions make unrealistic claims for improvements to salary and working conditions. There is no suggestion that employers make unrealistic or unreasonable demands. The Coalition policy states that the Fair Work Commission will have to “be satisfied that claims are realistic and sensible” before they can approve an application for protected action. This has the potential to further delay negotiations while the union proves the member’s/members’ claims meet any requirements which define “realistic and sensible claims”.

Further restrictions on the rights of union officials to enter work places to recruit and organise members are proposed by the Coalition. The Fair Work Act already imposes a number of limitations.

The Coalition’s policy suggests union officials must meet certain requirements before entering a workplace. It states that a union will have to prove a workplace enterprise agreement is covered by the union, or that it is bargaining for an agreement, and that members have requested the union’s presence.

The Coalition’s policy also suggests that there may be restrictions on where union meetings can be held. The policy states there should be a “fair balance” between the right of members to meet in a lunch room and the right of non-members to relax.

Mr Abbott has made much of the need to cut what he describes as “red and green tape” for businesses. These proposed changes may require unions to constantly prove to the Fair Work Commission the rights of members to access union support, the legitimacy of their claims for pay and conditions, as well as their rights to take action to pursue these claims.

The Coalition has made it clear that they will make changes to the Fair Work Act in the ways described. They will also refer the Act to the Productivity Commission for a review on the impact and operation of the Act.

They don’t need to re-introduce WorkChoices to limit workers rights, changes to the Fair Work Act could achieve the same result.