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WorkChoices back in spotlight after latest IR -

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WorkChoices back in spotlight after latest IRC ruling

Reporter: Natasha Johnson

ALI MOORE: The Federal Government's WorkChoices legislation is set to be a key focus in the lead-up
to this year's federal election and a landmark decision by the Industrial Relations Commission has
triggered fresh debate about its fairness. Currently, companies with less than 100 employees are
exempt from unfair dismissal laws. Now, the Commission has delivered a judgment which backs the
right of large companies to sack workers for operational reasons. The case involves a 52-year-old
Melbourne man, Warren Cutler, who was employed by Village Roadshow for almost 20 years before being
laid off when the company closed the cinema where he worked. Village Roadshow has defended its
action, but the unions say he should have been redeployed in a corporation that's forecast
significant profits in the year ahead. Natasha Johnson reports.

NATASHA JOHNSON: As the hit Australian film 'Happy Feet' draws huge audiences through the doors of
Village cinemas this summer, the movie giant has found itself with a starring role in the unfolding
story of Australia's workplace revolution, thanks to its sacking of a longstanding employee.

WARREN CUTLER, FORMER EMPLOYEE: I was just amazed and disappointed. I didn't think it would come
that way.

SHARAN BURROW, ACTU: Well, it's appalling. It might be legal, but it's morally bankrupt.

PETER HENDY, AUSTRALIAN CHAMBER OF COMMERCE AND INDUSTRY: Our view is that the ACTU is hysterical
about this and they have little legitimacy to go around talking about morality. The fact is,
they're running an incredible scare campaign against WorkChoices.

NATASHA JOHNSON: The drama centres on Warren Cutler. He worked for Village for 19 years until he
was sacked last July, when the company closed the cinema complex he managed in Melbourne's eastern
suburb of Doncaster. Warren Cutler challenged it in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission,
claiming unfair dismissal.

WARREN CUTLER: I believe it's unfair because while, yes, the cinema closed, it was a branch. It's
like if one McDonald's closes do all those employees at McDonald's lose their jobs? But no, they
relocate them. They relocated every other employee at that cinema complex except for me.

NATASHA JOHNSON: While he initially won his case, the Federal Government appeal and yesterday the
Full Bench of the Commission ruled the dismissal was legal under the new industrial relations laws,
due to genuine operational reasons such as the cinema's closure.

SHARAN BURROW: A company can now sack you when it's convenient simply to restructure your position.

NATASHA JOHNSON: The ACTU is alarmed at the broad interpretation of operational reasons that's
meant a large corporation which is forecasting a profit of $36 million this year had no obligation
to redeploy an experienced and long standing employee.

SHARAN BURROW: What is an operational reason when there's no financial hardship, there's no lack of
capacity to consider redeployment, yet this Government intervened on the behalf of the employer and
basically facilitated the sacking of this worker.

NATASHA JOHNSON: While businesses with less than 100 employees are exempt from unfair dismissal
laws, the ACTU argues this decision now enables large companies to find a way around them. Warren
Cutler agrees.

WARREN CUTLER: Employers will now use that, this decision, to really screw over employees if they
want to.

NATASHA JOHNSON: The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industries' Peter Hendy says the decision
is entirely fair, given the employer bears the responsibility of proving the operational reasons
for a dismissal.

PETER HENDY: What the Full Bench decided was that if you have a genuine case of operational need
for redundancy, you can proceed. How anybody could complain about that I don't know and in fact
it's actually a reverse onus of proof, because it has to be the employer that proves there is a
genuine operational need. It's not for the employee.

NATASHA JOHNSON: But a veteran of the industrial arena, former Employers' Federation director
George Polites, has questioned the fairness of the new laws in light of the Commission's decision.

GEORGE POLITES, FORMER EMPLOYERS' ADVOCATE: Somebody with 20 years of service, one would think
there's a moral obligation to do something about that person even though the building in which he
serves is going to be demolished. The legislation doesn't provide for that and to that extent I
think it's a little bit one-sided.

NATASHA JOHNSON: He argues that the pendulum has now swung back too far and eventually, community
anxiety will force the WorkChoices laws to be modified.

GEORGE POLITES: Because I think the community will see that there is a degree of unfairness. There
was a period when unions had too much power, you could argue, and some modification of that was
desirable, which we did. Now we've gone the other way, I think there will be a move back again.

PETER HENDY: We think that, generally, the changes to unfair dismissal laws that were brought in
with WorkChoices will actually reduce a lot of red tape, a lot of complication in the law that was
actually keeping people getting jobs. We actually think WorkChoices and these unfair dismissal
changes will actually boost working opportunities for Australians.

NATASHA JOHNSON: Village Roadshow declined to comment on the case today, and while the cinema where
Warren Cutler worked has now been demolished, he claims it's to be rebuilt in the redeveloped
shopping centre on the same site. At 52 years of age, he's now relying on casual employment and
with industrial relations set to be a flashpoint in the lead-up to this year's federal election,
he's warned the Federal Industrial Relations Minister Kevin Andrews to beware.

WARREN CUTLER: I would strongly tell him that this is a mistaken decision and is he well aware of
the repercussions of this decision to other employees and other people.

(c) 2007 ABC