Saturday, November 15, 2008


Workplace law to boost power to end long disputes

Mark Davis Political Correspondent, SMH

November 15, 2008

EMPLOYEES locked out of their jobs by their employers during enterprise bargaining will be able to secure arbitrated settlements of the disputes if they are suffering financial hardship, under the Federal Government's planned industrial relations legislation.

The Minister for Workplace Relations, Julia Gillard, said yesterday that the legislation would expand the existing powers of the federal industrial tribunal to resolve protracted collective bargaining disputes.

She said arbitration of industrial disputes would still be "very unusual" under Labor's new system because the emphasis would be on pay and working conditions being negotiated by employers and employees.

"But there are of course circumstances when bargaining goes off the rails and when the industrial umpire will need to step in," Ms Gillard said. "Fair Work Australia, as the industrial umpire, will be able to blow the whistle and refer a bargaining dispute for the making of a workplace determination where industrial action taken during bargaining has a particularly negative or dangerous impact."

The existing Workplace Relations Act allows the tribunal to arbitrate where an enterprise bargaining dispute is causing significant harm to the economy or threatening the health or safety of the public.

Ms Gillard revealed that this would be expanded to allow arbitration where:

- An employer has locked out employees and they are suffering significant economic harm;
- Employees are on strike and the employer and employees alike are suffering significant economic harm;
- An employer or a union has flouted legal requirements to bargain in good faith;
- Low-paid workers are seeking their first enterprise agreement and negotiations have failed to reach agreement.

The changes to Labor's original plans represent a win for the union movement, which has been concerned that employers can engage in long lock-outs or refuse to negotiate with unions in bargaining disputes.

The secretary of the ACTU, Jeff Lawrence, said including "last resort arbitration" would protect low-paid workers such as cleaners, child-care workers and hospitality workers seeking enterprise agreements.

"The empowerment of Fair Work Australia to issue binding determinations when parties persistently refuse to bargain in good faith will also ensure that there is a circuit-breaker for intractable disputes," he said. "This will prevent unscrupulous employers from snubbing their noses at the rights of their employees to collectively bargain."

The chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, Heather Ridout, welcomed the confirmation that there would be no general power for Fair Work Australia to settle disputes through arbitration except where all parties agreed to it.

"The global economic crisis has intensified the risks for the economy and that this legislation will be implemented in an environment of increasing not reducing unemployment."