Fair Work Review: A short fall for industry

The findings of the long awaited review into the Fair Work Act has been underwhelming especially for the manufacturing industry which had hoped for some sweeping changes could help alleviate labour pressures, one of many issues, the industry is currently facing.

While the purpose of the Fair Work Act Review, Towards more productive and equitable workplaces: An evaluation of the Fair Work legislation, released 3 August 2012, was to evaluate the Fair Work Act introduced in 2009 to replace the unpopular WorkChoices which came into effect in 2006, and to make recommendations where necessary to help shift workplace agreements in favour of employees reversing some changes under the WorkChoices that left employees “out in cold” so to say.

These changes included the removal of unfair dismissal laws for companies under a certain size and the removal of the "no disadvantage test" which promoted individual efficiency over collected employee agreements.

For the ailing manufacturing industry, the pertinent issue the Review board and the Government needs to be addressing is the industry’s labour challenges through supporting skills develop and collaboration, rather than pushing for a bottom line on rights and conditions, according to the industry peak union body, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU).

Acting National Secretary, Paul Bastian says the government’s response to the review must seek to develop high-skilled, high-wage and high-trust workplaces to provide a sustainable and competitive manufacturing industry.

“The public recognises that manufacturing is a critical industry to Australia’s future. But it faces significant challenges from the high Australian dollar, rising global manufacturing capability and a decade of lost productivity growth,” he said in a statement.

“Industry problems, such as those faced by the manufacturing sector, require industry solutions.

“They require vision from leaders and management, collaboration across businesses and sectors, with science and technology, and between workers, their unions and employers.”

Bastian said that while collective bargaining is the cornerstone to this approach, and it must be broadened from enterprise to industry bargaining.

The AMWU is concerned that the Review, and the government’s response to it, could miss some clear opportunities to genuinely address the issue of productivity, he noted.

“You don’t improve productivity by taking away workers’ rights or pitting worker against worker through individual contracts,” Bastian said.

“All political parties must stand by an IR system that promotes smart productivity not a race to the bottom on wages and conditions.

“Stronger good faith bargaining provisions and access to an independent umpire to decide disputes or resolve deadlocks for workers are also critical.’

Bastian noted the disadvantages non-uniformed workplace laws across Australian industries citing the recently decided AMWU v Cochlear case.

“Why should wealthy miners have the right to arbitration for greenfield agreements on their billion dollar projects, when workers at Cochlear, who have been unable to get the company to bargain a new union agreement since 2007, do not?”

AMWU v Cochlear

Commenting on the AMWU v Cochlear, Stephen Smith, Director National Workplace Relations of the Australian Industry Group said: "Cochlear is not prepared to enter into an enterprise agreement which would damage its competitiveness. The Fair Work Act does not require a company to enter into an agreement that it does not support.”

In a decision handed down last Friday, Commissioner Cargill of Fair Work Australia found that during the long running bargaining process on few specific issues either the company or the union or both have not met all of the good faith bargaining requirements of the Act at all times.

However, the Tribunal did find that generally the parties have legitimately pursued their bargaining strategies.

"Commissioner Cargill has ordered that there be a program of bargaining meetings over the next few months and that the union can have discussions with the employees during their lunch break. The company is considering the terms of these orders and whether or not an appeal will be pursued," Smith said in a statement.

Fair Work Act Review

The Review 3-person panel is made up of Reserve Bank board member John Edwards, former Federal Court judge Michael Moore and a legal and workplace relations expert Ron McCallum.

The Fair Work Act Review, Towards more productive and equitable workplaces: An evaluation of the Fair Work legislation can be downloaded here.