The Productivity Commission inquiry into the workplace relations system  has so far been like watching re-runs of old sit-coms on TV. You know what is going to be said next because you know the formula and this isn’t the first time you have seen it.

But unlike sitcoms there isn’t much to laugh at in this latest round of workplace relations reform speculation. The nature of work and our workplaces is rapidly changing, and the workplace relations framework is lagging well behind, but the Productivity Commission and many stakeholders are not engaging outside their narrow economic perspective.

As John Buchanan from the University of Sydney notes in plain terms “The discussion papers circulated by the Commission reflect the pre-occupations of policy elites fighting the battles of the 1980s. The world has moved on.”

The “IR debate” continues along its well worn ruts, placing the neoliberal economic values of productivity, efficiency and competition at the centre, with passing references to “fairness” and “balance”. The interests of those doing the work – employees and other workers – are a secondary consideration and distraction from the logic of an economic perspective that views workers as just another commodity. The actual working lives of people aren’t given much of a look in.

We were staggered by the lack of interest from the Government and Productivity Commission on the pressing issues of precarious and insecure work; growing inequality in Australia; and the continuing challenges facing women in the workforce. And we weren’t alone. The Work and Family Policy Roundtable & The Women + Work Research Group notes:

“There is no recognition in these TOR of the profound changes in the nature of the Australian worker, the household out of which they work, or the gender differences, inequalities and challenges that exist in our labour market. Work, care and family issues, similarly, simply do not figure in the Treasurer’s TOR. These are terms of reference for another, older time. They take too little account of the contemporary needs of the worker, their diverse circumstances, their caring and broader life context, their gender, their needs for flexibility, the barriers they face to participation, and the need for an appropriately responsive and inclusive workplace regulation framework.”

In contrast, the corporate lobby has been making all their usual arguments for reducing rights and increasing flexibility.  The Business Council of Australia is proposing one universal award restricted to ten matters with agreements restricted to seven matters thereby massively broadening the scope of managerial prerogative. ACCI unapologetically wants to go back in time to the Howard years and further deregulation with individual statutory agreements, no unfair dismissal protections for employees in small businesses and even more restrictions on workers acting collectively. The Australian Industry Group also wants individual contracts and more managerial rights for employers.

The ACTU is also a bit stuck. Reviving the WorkChoices campaign may be useful in protecting existing rights against the corporate campaign for more deregulation but it is also essentially a campaign for the status quo. There is a risk the campaign focus will hide the important changes unions are calling for, particularly in relation to addressing the issues arising from the increasing prevalence of insecure work.

The AIER takes a different approach. We don’t want to go back to the 80s, 90, or 2000s. We want a debate about the role workplace regulation plays in our society; the nature of work today and its trends; and the desirability of decent work.

We set out in our submission to the Productivity Commission inquiry the following four principles we think should underpin workplace relations regulation:

  • Workplace relations laws are socially beneficial laws, and as such people should not able to contract out of such laws by, for example, redefining employees as contractors;
  • Labour is not a commodity;
  • Compliance with International Labour Standards; and
  • The potential for encouraging collaborative workplaces.

Further we suggest that the capacity to provide for decent work is useful framework for evaluating the workplace relations system.  The concept of decent work pervades the regulation of minimum standards, both legislatively and through awards; requires a robust system of collective bargaining; and freedom from discrimination and arbitrary dismissal. It is an essential element to combatting the detrimental economic and social consequences of precarious and insecure work.

The only reference to inequality in the Issues Paper is in relation to the minimum wage. The minimum wage and other remuneration such as compensation for working unsocial hours is a vital ingredient in addressing inequality. But equally the award system; collective bargaining and its corollary, the right to strike; and security of work are also essential elements in combating growing inequality. It is not just the creation of jobs but the creation of decent work that should be the focus.

The challenge we face is to push past the pre-written script and the status quo and use this opportunity to re-cast the workplace relations debate. A system focused on workers, not just employees. A system that operates to recognise the essential human nature of work. Workplace relations laws and policies regulate relationships between people. They are socially beneficial laws that should respect the dignity of the people engaged in work.

Further reading: AIER’s Ron McCallum Debate Discussion Paper, How do workplace relations shape our society