If Workchoices were real work choices it would win
John Howard’s reported calls to bring back individual contracts has brought cries that the conservatives have a sneaky agenda to bring back WorkChoices. This holds about as much credit as Mr Abbott’s Carbon Tax “wrecking ball” analogy.
Individual agreements have been common place before the 1996 Workplace Relations Act, a full decade before Workchoices. So anyone that calls individual contracts a product of Workchoices, is either being tricky with the facts or is grossly ill informed.
Individual agreements are contentious because they undermine collective bargaining, which is a principle at the core of union values. The Fair Work laws,as they sit today make it near impossible for “individual flexibility” to work in a practical sense. This leaves collective agreements, negotiated with the union and the employer as the only real path to tailor working conditions with the specific needs of the workplace.
Of course this provides a neat reason to join the union and therefore also acts as marketing tool for these unions and gives them face time with members and prospective members in the workplace.
The starting point for working conditions are modern awards. These awards may limit productivity or not suit a way a business runs. So if the majority of staff and boss agree, they can change the minimum standards of work.
At the moment, for an collective agreement to pass the muster each worker must be better off overall (so called “BOOT”). Previous tests have included the “no disadvantage test”. Basically, the test looks at the hours worked including penalties and weekend rates and if you don’t pay the worker at least that, the deal won’t float.
The disgraceful Workchoices came in an said an employer and employee can negotiate their own terms. Initially there was no test on the worker being screwed. Some high profile cases came along where penalty rates were being “bought out” for 2 cents per week.
Vulnerable workers were given the employment equivalent of a crap sandwich, which they had to take or leave. After some heat, Howard brought in a “Fairness Test” which wasn’t much better.
So critics of buying out conditions for nix and an employer asserting an unreasonable bargaining position have cause to squeal if these were to came back. Abbott has ruled this out already, so why Mr Shorten can link individual contracts to Workchoices is not immediately obvious but most certainly should be viewed with great suspicion.
Surely, a employer, acting in good faith has the right to make a deal with an individual employee, if both choose to? That seems simply fair.
For politicians, employers and employees that like the idea of individual arrangements being back on the political agenda, they must be rolling their eyes that the bloke advancing this debate is the one the got annihilated at the polls because he took his ideologue and turned it into an open hand slap for his “Howard Battlers”?
Collective bargaining is an important option for workers. Important option yes, only option, no. If the conservatives get spooked by the ghost of WorkChoices past every time individual contracts are mentioned, then the quality of the debate will be pretty low.
This is our nation’s productivity that we are talking about. Surely the issue is more important and resilient as to not be vapourised at the first cry of WorkChoices?
The workforce has been re-regulated under PM Gillard’s supervision. This means that the protections for workers have not been as strong since Bob Hawke was tinkering around with the old workplace Accords. Provided the workers are better off, or at the very least, not worse off, why shouldn’t business and the employee be able to deal directly without it being Union business? Why does the mention of this open Pandora’s box and unleash the dreaded Workchoices bogie man?
Simple things like what are the start and finish times? What makes ordinary hours (ie 5 days at 7.6 hours or 4 days at 9 hours should it suit everyone?). What if there are productivity incentives, or specific working arrangements for the family situation a valued worker? Why should these be based on the collective in priority of the individual employee’s needs and wants?
The one thing that seems certain is that coming into the next election we are likely to hear Bill Shorten using the dreaded phrase “WorkChoices” more than Kevin Rudd used Working Families in 2008. The workplace is not a cookie cutter.
Some need the warm embrace of collective bargaining and others prefer the road less trodden with individual arrangements. Both work and both groups need and deserve workplace laws that don’t hold them back because either government is wrapped up in ideologue and too scared to be honest with their constituents.
Miles Heffernan @Mileshef on Twitter
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