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Thursday, 13 March 2008
Page: 1738

Ms VAMVAKINOU (1:36 PM) —In the lead-up to last year’s federal election, federal Labor were unambiguous in our commitment to abolish the Howard government’s unfair and unpopular Work Choices laws. The promise that we made to the Australian public was that Labor would create a fairer and simpler workplace relations system in Australia, one that reflected the needs of modern Australia and one that struck the right balance between the needs of employees and employers. This is a commitment that I made to the people of my electorate of Calwell and one that federal Labor made to millions of workers across the country. A key part of that commitment was the abolition of the Australian workplace agreements, or AWAs. AWAs had rapidly become synonymous with the Howard government’s unfair Work Choices law. Under Work Choices, employers used AWAs to dictate terms and conditions to employees that often annulled the most basic rights and protections that Australian workers fought so hard to secure. Overtime, penalty rates, meal breaks, leave loadings and a host of other conditions all fell victim to the onslaught of Work Choices and the unfair AWAs. Hardworking Australians and their families, including workers who live in my electorate of Calwell, were left to pay the price. In concert with the pre-election commitments that federal Labor made to restore fairness and balance to Australian workplaces and to introduce sensible transitional arrangements to allow those employers and employees using AWAs to prepare for the full implementation of the government’s new workplace relations system in 2010, I am happy to speak to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008 currently before the House.

In essence this bill begins the substantive work of overhauling Work Choices by introducing legislation that will see an end to Australian workplace agreements as well as the implementation of a new no disadvantage test to replace the previous government’s fairness test. This bill seeks to amend the Workplace Relations Act 1996 in order to prevent the making of new Australian workplace agreements from the bill’s commencement date; to provide for transitional arrangements through the creation of interim transitional employment agreements—or ITEAs—to run to 31 December 2009; to replace the existing fairness test with a genuine no disadvantage test that will apply to all workplace agreements; and to allow for the modernisation of federal and former state industrial awards by 31 December 2009. Each of these amendments is consistent with the policies and commitments contained in federal Labor’s 2007 Forward with Fairness policy and the Forward with Fairness policy implementation plan. They signify the first step in this government’s plans to implement a fairer workplace relations system that is intended to be fully operational by 1 January 2010.

Item 1 of the bill repeals and replaces section 326 of the 1996 act to prevent the making of new Australian workplace agreements from the date this bill comes into effect. It also maps out transitional arrangements for those employees currently on AWAs through the establishment of individual transitional employment agreements. ITEAs will only be available to employers who on 1 December 2007 employed a worker under an individual statutory agreement, including an AWA. This restriction is designed to prevent employers who currently do not employ staff under AWAs from signing new workers up to AWAs before the bill’s commencement date. Importantly, ITEAs cannot be used to strip existing employees of their collective agreements. As the bill sets out, ITEAs will be available until the completion of the award modernisation process and the implementation of the government’s Forward with Fairness reforms—all will have an expiry date of no later than 31 December 2009. The bill also provides that an ITEA must be made with an employee prior to their commencing employment or under specific circumstances no longer than 14 days after they are employed. Once an ITEA or an existing AWA expires, employees are empowered under the bill to enter into negotiations over, and approve, new collective agreements. The bill also guarantees the right of employees to take part in secret ballots for protected industrial action. Both ITEAs and collective agreements will be subjected to a new no disadvantage test, which is introduced under division 5A of the bill to replace the existing fairness test. In essence, an ITEA needs to be lodged with the Workplace Authority Director and will pass the no disadvantage test only if it is deemed not to disadvantage an employee against an applicable collective agreement or the Australian Fair Pay Commission standard and only if it does not lead to an overall reduction in an employee’s terms and conditions of employment. The same mechanisms will also apply to collective agreements, which again are only permissible if they do not disadvantage employees against the Australian Fair Pay Commission standard or an applicable or designated award.

Under the bill, the Workplace Authority Director is also charged with the power to designate an award or amend an existing award where appropriate. When it comes to collective union and non-union agreements and ITEAs for existing employees, they will only take effect after they have passed the no disadvantage test and are approved by the Workplace Authority Director. ITEAs for new employees would apply from the date of their lodgement with the Workplace Authority Director but would cease to exist where they had been found to fail the no disadvantage test. Under these provisions, this bill abolishes Australian workplace agreements in favour of new interim transitional employment agreements that will have an expiry date of no later than 31 December 2009. It also replaces the previous government’s fairness test with a new and genuine no disadvantage test that is designed to protect the basic rights of all working Australians. The new no disadvantage test will also apply to negotiated collective agreements.

Importantly, however, this bill will also make it impossible for an employer to unilaterally terminate a collective agreement once it has expired or to force employees to accept a new set of minimum standards and conditions that would make them worse off. Instead, the termination of a collective agreement will require approval from both parties and throughout employees will continue to be entitled to whatever award or workplace agreement would have applied to them but for the terminated agreement. For employees already on an AWA, the bill allows them to make and approve a collective agreement without having to terminate the AWA and to also take part in a secret ballot to seek protected industrial action. In the charged atmosphere surrounding the Work Choices debate, this bill seeks to balance the needs of both employees and employers and to put into place arrangements that facilitate a seamless transition to a simpler, fairer and more balanced workplace relations system in Australia.

There is one other aspect of the bill that I would like to address before concluding, namely the amendments it contains to begin the process of award modernisation for the establishment of a modern award system for Australia. Item 9, part 10A, sets out the parameters of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission’s powers to establish a modern awards system at the request of the minister. The bill stipulates that the Australian Industrial Relations Commission must give regard to an awards system that is simple and easy to understand and that reduces the regulatory burden on business; that provides a fair minimum safety net of enforceable terms and standards; that is economically sustainable and promotes flexible work practices; and that is in a form that promotes collective bargaining.

Establishing a modern award system that balances the need for flexibility with the protection of basic rights and conditions at work is absolutely crucial when it comes to developing a fairer industrial relations system, one that reflects the changed realities of today’s workplaces. The matters to be dealt with under modern awards include the following: the minimum wage, the type of employment that employees want to be involved in, arrangements for when work is performed, overtime rates, penalty rates, annualised wage and salary arrangements, allowances, leave, superannuation and consultation, representation and dispute settlement procedures. Each of these items will form the backbone of a new modern awards system, which will in turn furnish the basic building blocks for a fairer, simpler and more balanced workplace relations system in Australia. These awards and the protections they offer to working Australians are the very same as those targeted by the previous government’s unfair Work Choices laws, laws under which it became possible for employers to impose AWAs that wrote out many of the fundamental rights that have long protected Australian workers and their families.

This bill will speak to countless workers across Australia, including those who live in my electorate of Calwell. It begins to put in place transitional arrangements aimed at creating an industrial relations system built on fairness and balance, one that faithfully reflects the needs of modern Australia. It begins to dismantle the destructive legacy of Work Choices, a legacy that an overwhelming majority of Australians want to see an end to in the interests of decency and fairness. It is for this reason that I strongly commend the Workplace Relations Amendment Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008 to the House.