Christian Kerr writes:

Beazley would “not have been a Labor
leader’s bootlace if he had not taken a stand on a measure that will cut the
pay and conditions of many low to middle-income earners”, Mike Steketee writes
in The Oz
today.

He’s correct – but Beazley bungled the
announcement. The Opposition Leader should have come out with a comprehensive
plan, rather than just saying he would scrap AWAs. The states are seeking to
have the WorkChoices laws overturned in the High Court. Beazley should have got
them on board and drawn up a proposal for legislated national minimum standards
and an agreement stream.

It’s odd.
Labor is concentrating on the details of WorkChoices and how the new laws
affect voters – but they’ve left themselves open to the charge of policy making on the
run by not spelling out the detail of what should replace AWAs. Perhaps the
best suggestions came in a release earlier this week from the Australian
Democrats’ workplace relations spokesperson Senator Andrew Murray
who declared that AWAs must go, but statutory
individual contracts are needed as part of the agreements system:

These AWAs under the new WorkChoices legislation are
just unacceptable. Under the old Workplace Relations Act, while AWAs
needed
improvement and greater protections built into the system, they were
workable. The new AWAs are almost always take it or leave it
contracts; duress is not policed; there is no global no disadvantage
test;
there is no requirement to bargain in good faith; and the minimum
conditions
underpinning the contract are derisory…

A mix of agreement making – collective bargaining, awards
and individual agreements – provides necessary flexibility in a modern economy,
but all agreements must be fair to both employees and employers, and there must
be an adequate safety net for workers. It is true that collective agreements are often better
for workers, but that is not always so, and individual agreements are a part of
working life. Common-law protections are not sufficient for workers on
individual contracts. Statutory provision must also be made for them.

But we’ve got
to remember in all of this that the number of employees on AWAs still pales in
comparison to the number of employees on collective agreements. The AWA stats
released by the Office of the Employee Advocate may overstate the actual number
of persons on agreements because it counts the number of agreements, not people
on AWAs – one person may have had a number of agreements with the one employer.
The figure also includes federal public servants who have no choice but to sign
up to an AWA if they want a job, a pay rise or a promotion.

Then there’s
the issue of awards. ABS figures show that less than 19% of employees
are award-reliant. The vast majority are on certified agreements or common law
contracts. Which takes us
back to Beazley’s attack. It’s good politics – but it would have been better
politics with more detail. The business attack and the Government’s defence of
its new system would have been harder to mount.

Peter Fray

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