Grave concerns

An historic 43-page joint submission by 151 Australian academics has been put to the Senate inquiry into the 'Work Choices' Bill. Following is a summary of their key concerns.

"We share grave concerns about the historic and far-reaching changes now proposed for Australia's workplace relations system. We represent a large, diverse group of Australian experts, including the majority of leaders in our field of industrial relations, drawn from management, business, employment and law - amongst us 31 Professors.

We often debate our ideas vigorously and do not always agree. But on this Bill, we share grave, common concerns. Many elements in the Bill will not meet the challenges facing Australia and some will make them worse.

"The Bill is based on a series of assumptions that are not supported by evidence."

1. The proposed changes deserve thorough public discussion, which the government's timetable does not allow. They are profound rather than evolutionary. Beyond its intended consequences, the Bill has potential for serious unintended consequences.

2. One of the government's goals is to reduce complexity. Instead, the Bill adds new complexities. Understanding it challenges even experts. Many employers will struggle to implement it, and many employees already have very limited knowledge about the industrial relations system and their rights. These changes will complicate workplace life, foster industrial litigation and confuse many employees and employers. This is not deregulation, it is increased regulation.

3. The Bill's new bargaining regime will advantage employers over workers and their unions. For many years the government has stated its wish to allow employees and employers to directly decide workplace matters. Yet this Bill is very prescriptive about what is allowed, or disallowed, in bargaining, how bargaining is conducted, and how unions conduct their activities. These constraints are partisan. They constrain the scope of employees and unions to pursue their interests and impose severe penalties for breaches.

Employees and employers approach the labour market with different levels of power. Internationally, labour law is designed to protect workers from exploitation and to ensure basic rights, including the right to organise and bargain collectively. The Bill ignores these widely accepted views and shifts the balance in Australian workplaces in an historic and radical change which is in conflict with international treaties to which Australia is party.

4. The Bill individualises bargaining. It allows employers to impose individual agreements. In most developed countries, the right to bargain collectively is protected by law. Instead, this Bill gives unilateral power to employers to choose the form of bargaining. It severely curtails workers' ability to join unions, restraining union entry to workplaces. It also severely curtails workers' capacity to take industrial action.

5. The Bill discourages genuine agreement-making and encourages the unilateral exercise of managerial power. Employers can make 'agreements with themselves' in new undertakings. Very importantly, employers will be able to unilaterally terminate agreements and establish working conditions below award standards, without consulting employees. Most will be able to summarily dismiss employees who object. This will discourage employees from making initial agreements, and discourage employers from making subsequent agreements.

6. The Bill lowers minimum labour standards. It abolishes the 'no disadvantage' test that protected award conditions. Many workers will face the loss of conditions like public holidays, rest breaks, incentive based pay, annual leave loadings, allowances, penalty rates and shift and overtime penalties, either in an agreement or afterwards. This represents a serious decline in minimum standards.

7. We are concerned about increasing inequality arising from the Bill. Such inequality has already been growing in Australia, and has important social consequences for social exclusion, violence and ill health.

8. Australia has long had an independent industrial umpire - the Australian Industrial Relations Commission - with the capacity to weigh up arguments and make decisions based on evidence and fairness. The Bill removes most of the umpire's functions, including its ability to consider new industrial issues that arise in a changing workforce, as well as its ability to arbitrate cases involving the misuse of employer power, unless the employer consents. Employees may be forced into the common law courts to enforce their workplace rights.

9. The Bill reduces the existing work and family supports in Australia, and offers no way forward to their general improvement. This has important implications for future labour supply, for those least able to bargain for themselves, and for the well being of Australian men, women and children.

10. The Bill is based on a series of assumptions that are not supported by evidence. Indeed we find that they are contradicted by a sizeable body of empirical evidence. The available evidence indicates the longer-term impact on labour productivity may be perverse.

Fundamental changes such as these should not be made simply as a matter of faith. The long-run consequences of this Bill are like to be very serious - hence our shared, grave concern. We urge the government to reconsider its path."

The submission was presented to the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Committee on Thursday 17 November by Professor David Peetz (Griffith University), Professor Andrew Stewart (Flinders University), Associate Professor Barbara Pocock (University of Adelaide) and Robyn May (RMIT). For comments: Professor David Peetz: 0439 875 648; A/Professor Barbara Pocock 0414 244 606; Professor Andrew Stewart 0437 383413. The full submission may be read via the weblog Larvatus Prodeo, where comments are also welcome.

Also on the Evatt site