Manufacturing News

Australia’s new workplace

There’s more to the Government’s industrial relations changes than just the unfair dismissal reforms.

THE Government’s new industrial relations legislation (the Fair Work Act) was passed by Parliament in late March, and contains a number of important changes from the previous legislation, formally known as the Workplace Relations Act but colloquially named WorkChoices.

While the Ai Group is concerned about some aspects of the new legislation, it is a much better outcome than Labor’s Forward with Fairness policy which was released prior to the last Federal election.

In this column I would like to summarise five key changes that apply from July 1, 2009 and are likely to affect companies in the manufacturing sector.

One obvious departure from the previous legislation is a change to the names of the key industrial relations institutions.

From July 1, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission will be renamed Fair Work Australia. This new organisation will also absorb the Australian Fair Pay Commission and the Workplace Authority.

In addition, the Office of the Fair Work Ombudsman will replace the Workplace Ombudsman and, from 1 February 2010, a specialist division of the Ombudsman will replace the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner.

But for many, the highest profile aspect of the legislation – partly because they were a sticking point in the Senate – are the changes to the unfair dismissal laws.

Under the new Act, from July 1 the WorkChoices exemption from unfair dismissal laws for businesses employing 100 or fewer staff has been abolished. Small businesses will once again be subject to unfair dismissal laws but employers with less than 15 full-time equivalent employees will be subject to special arrangements.

These employers will not be exposed to unfair dismissal claims within the first 12 months of employment. (For other employers a six month qualifying period applies).

Also a Small Business Fair Dismissal Code will apply to these employers which will simplify the procedures for dismissing an employee.

Thirdly, from July 1 a “good faith bargaining” system applies to enterprise agreement making, and there are also changes to the types of agreements a company can make.

Good faith bargaining is designed to ensure that all representatives attempt to resolve their differences without resorting to unfair tactics. However, the Act does not require any party to make concessions during bargaining, or to reach agreement.

Enterprise agreements will no longer be separated into union and non-union agreements.

In a fourth significant change, union right of entry is broader under the new legislation.

From July 1 a union official will have the right to enter a workplace to hold discussions with employees during their meal break if the employees wish to participate in the discussions and if they are eligible to join the union.

The previous requirement that the union needed to be a party to the relevant award or workplace agreement has been removed.

When investigating suspected breaches of an award or agreement, a union official cannot generally access the payroll records of non-union members.

And finally, from July 1 new laws will apply where a business is sold or outsourced and any staff member becomes employed by the new employer. The provisions are much wider than the WorkChoices laws and in many cases the new employer will become bound indefinitely by the enterprise agreement applicable to the old employer.

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