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Time for change?

Most employees in Australia come under the aegis of the Fair Work Act 2009, a piece of federal legislation introduced by the Rudd Government, in response to the infamous WorkChoices laws of the late era Howard government.

In many ways, the Fair Work Act is a significant improvement on the industrial regime it replaced, as it enshrines industry awards and collective bargaining as its centerpiece. It was also instrumental in assisting Australia through the difficult times of the Global Financial Crisis, and the end of the mining boom. As the Act approaches the end of its first decade, it can be seen as a moderately successful piece of reform.

However, there are also significant shortcomings which need to be addressed. First among these are the limitations on bargaining, not least the fact that there is no requirement for the parties to actually agree’ on anything. This means that, in theory at least, unions and employers can bargain for years, without coming to an agreed conclusion. In practice, of course, it means that workers have to settle for a less than optimal outcome, on the basis that ‘it’s as good as it gets’.

Another problem is a more general one, that of the broader atmosphere of industrial relations. Routinely, trade unions are seen as a ‘problem’ to be managed, rather than as a stakeholder that has a constructive part to play. Unions are often seen as an entity quite separate from workers, whereas they should of course be seen as the legitimate representative of workers. Of course, there have been some instances of union misbehaviour, and those unions should be called out on that, but the general demonisation of unions has a deleterious effect on the bargaining environment, and plays a direct role in the long running wages drought that Australia has been experiencing.

The Labor Party has made some encouraging noises about changes to the Act, and we must hope that they follow through on that. In the meantime, we must all put pressure on them to live up to their heritage as the workers’ party.