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ACTU skeptical new conditions will become a w -

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(generated from captions) As we've heard, a win for the ACTU today with an industrial commission ruling that will help working parents. The right to request part-time work and an extra 12 months of unpaid parental leave brings Australia into line with changes that have been introduced in the United Kingdom. But with significant changes being flagged to our entire industrial framework, it's unclear whether these new conditions will ever be a feature of the workplace. ACTU president Sharan Burrow is skeptical as she prepares for a week of intense lobbying in the national capital. I spoke to her a short time ago from our studios in Canberra. Sharan Burrow, to today's IRC decision on parental leave.

How do you see the effect of these changes? This is a great day for working parents. The effect is to give working parents a capacity to request the right to part-time work on return from parental leave, up to two years in unpaid parental leave and indeed a capacity for up to eight weeks for simultaneous leave for both parents at the birth of a child. It really does bring us into the 21st century. It's effectively the British legislation, which has worked so well that employers are confident that they would be prepared to think about extending it to employees beyond those with preschool-aged children. So the right to request flexibilities at work for working parents underpinned by a "not unreasonable refusal" test for employers. So where an employer can genuinely not do this, that is accepted. But in the British case we see 88% of requests actually endorsed. So it's good news all round and we hope that employers will embrace it. The real challenge, Maxine, is for the Prime Minister.

Will he put this in his minimum standards now so working parents in Australia know that he's serious about work and family balance? Of course it is an additional consideration for employers at a time when the Government is aiming to simplify awards. So I suppose there's no guarantee these rights will or this right to request, as you say it is, will see the light of day. What the Government is actually aiming to do is shift as many people as possible on to individual contracts

to deny collective bargaining rights, except where the employer agrees, where we could, of course, guarantee these conditions and take awards as the comprehensive "no disadvantage" test out from under those individual contracts. That means you put the employer at the helm. Now, given our employers' almost dark-age mentality in terms of their representatives about guaranteed rights to request, hardly a radical approach, but one we endorse, one what works for everybody, a fair go all round, if you like, for both working parents and employers, then we'd be very worried that the evidence to date of individual contracts and the evidence that will stack up in the future for non-managerial staff will mean more hours, rather than less hours, and less flexibility

that works for working people. Anyway, it shouldn't be about patronage. It actually should be about the right to request which makes up for a modern workplace, keeps women in the workforce, attached to the labour market, retains skills for employers and, as we've seen through the British evidence, actually works for productivity. In terms of this decision today, how do you see it in practical terms?

You've been saying today for instance that it's no cost to employers, but I would have thought only organisations of a certain size are really going to be able to accommodate things like these requests for permanent part-time work, certainly until your child is of school age. Well, that's not the evidence in Britain, but it is the test of "not unreasonable refusal". So as well as putting it in the minimum standards legislation,

John Howard needs to keep this role for the Industrial Relations Commission so that either employers or employees can actually test disputation in this area. We would think that overwhelmingly this would be settled by request. It should shift the culture and like has happened in Britain, both employers and employees would see a way to work around their needs. is one that actually works for employers as well and the Commission should be the arbiter of any disputation. Is that a concession, though, that you would think that not that many small employers will be able to meet these kind of requests? I think you'd be surprised about how flexible small business can be and if they know there's a way of keeping a very skilled employee attached to their enterprise, then I think that flexibility of permanent part-time work,

security for the business, security for the working parent,

will actually enhance productivity and enable them to train up someone else by dent of support for the employee that's got those skills, but also it provides for a good mix all round. So I'd be very surprised if a lot of small businesses weren't actually very enthusiastic about this. They tell us they're worried about losing skilled workers, particularly at a time of increasingly full employment. That being the case, is there a need to to be prescriptive about this in a tight labour market?

The latest figures I've seen are interesting.

It says the BCA, Business Council, now says that over 70% of its members do offer some kind of maternity leave. Yes, but it's very limited and, of course, we're not talking about paid maternity leave, but that's still very limited. This will work in award terms right now

for a third of the private sector workforce where there are women involved. When you add to that their partners, then that's a very good guarantee of the confidence that working parents need to request the kind of hours and arrangements or the length of parental leave that will work for them. We would hope that it will work for business.

Certainly the evidence is in in Britain

and when you've got confident parental attachment to the labour market, as well as, of course, the capacity for them to balance their family commitments, you've got to have increased productivity. So we'd say to employers,

we already know it's in good corporate practice, but to the broader employer community, give it a go. That's what this is all about. The Commission has said that it will review the implementation, just as they did in Britain over time, and we want it to work. We want it to work for all parties. But, you know, when working women tell you - 60% of full-time working women tell you they'd rather work in a permanent part-time capacity and when you look at the individual contract evidence to date

and it's simply not there, then this has got to be a great day for working people and we only hope the Prime Minister has the courage of his own commitments to actually stand up for working parents across the country. I just want to turn now, if I can, to workplace agreements. The AWAs you mentioned this a couple of minutes ago and they're anathema to the union movement, the Government, of course, is committed to expanding them. Individual contracts do you not concede do suit all sorts of people who don't easily fit within some kind of industry category.

Why not a compromised position whereby you retain the ability

for people to choose workplace agreements they want,

instead of this all-out abolition which the ACTU is advocating? There are common law individual contracts. We couldn't anyway, but we've never opposed the existence of such contracts. But when you take the experience with individual bargaining as the Government calls it, when it's a, "sign here or you don't get the job", when the evidence is in that individuals have been, in fact, pressured to trade off holiday leave, sick leave, all manner of entitlements, when the Government wants to explode the five-day week, when there's a capacity because of that, therefore to urge people to work 38 hours across Monday to Sunday without compensation through award entitlements like shift allowances,

etc, overtime pay, penalty rates more generally, then what you get is potentially more hours, less pay and we say to John Howard, who's minding the kids?

Collective bargaining rights where people set those extra conditions are flexible enough if the employer will bargain with his employees. But the Minister's own department now has the audacity to have on the bottom of all new ads

"be prepared to sign an AWA" so no new starter can choose a collective agreement. No new starter can stand with other employees in the workplace and that's no choice. But it's not just an argument with John Howard. I mean, Labor leader Kim Beazley is certainly stopping short of committing a future Labor Government to complete abolition of workplace agreements. He says only that AWAs should not undermine collective bargaining. Why haven't you convinced him about this point? Because that's a rock-solid guarantee

that the primacy of collective bargaining will be guaranteed through law and that AWAs will not be used to discriminate where there is a collective bargaining arrangement by choice of the workplace, by choice of the individuals in that workplace standing together. That means, ultimately, that there will be no place for individual contracts in workplaces where collective bargaining rights are guaranteed and that's Kim Beazley's commitment. I know it's technical, Maxine, but I'm confident that if Labor was here right now, not only wouldn't we be having this argument, but we'd have workplace laws that absolutely give those commitments to a unique system of awards, to collective bargaining rights, to the kinds of minimum wage entitlements that are not about patronage by government, about who's apointed on the panel,

what the terms of reference are and the like. There's no argument with us -- There may not be between, say, you and Kim Beazley, but certainly Unionists in NSW, like John Robertson for instance, they have been saying they are disappointed with Kim Beazley's position

that he's not categorical about this saying abolish AWAs, which is the union position. I think they are asking Kim for a clear statement and that's fair enough. But look at Labor policy and look at what Kim Beazley is guaranteeing. Primacy of collective bargaining rights, and you know, Maxine, if the Labor Party was about to contest an election, then you would absolutely have a demand for an even clearer statement, but right now this is about John Howard. It's about every politician in this country. They are all law-makers for me. They were all elected by working people and their families. The central question is will they stand up for their constituency? Will we have workplaces because they've had the courage to stand up to John Howard where dignity and respect are underpinned by rights for our kids and grandkids or will they deliver us an Australia where John Howard says it is OK for the boss to sign here, to tell people to sign here or you don't get the job? That's not about decency. It's not about fairness. It's certainly not about rights. Sharan Burrow, for your time tonight, thank you very much. Thank you, Maxine.