AIER celebrated 10 years of advocating for fair and decent workplaces
Combined with the launch of our new book, Employment Rights Now: Reflections on the Australian Charter of Employment Rights, AIER held a public forum to mark our ten year anniversary.
Listen to the event here.
After AIER’s President Michael Harmer welcomed the assembled audience and made some introductory remarks noting the unique perspective and balanced approach of the Institute, Justice Mordy Bromberg recalled the context and impetus for establishing the organisation back in 2005. In particular in the context of the WorkChoices debate there was the need to have a principled-based approach to workplace relations that took precedence over the swings of the political pendulum. Justice Bromberg also singled out for thanks a number of people who have been important to the AIER over the last decade, including our first Director, Rob Durbridge, our former President, Paul Munro, longest serving Executive Director, Lisa Heap and current President, Michael Harmer.
Following these reflections on the history of the Institute, we held a panel discussion on the state of employment rights now featuring Professor Joellen Riley from Sydney University, Professor Keith Ewing from Kings College in London and Lisa Heap, former AIER Executive Director.
Professor Riley commented on the context for the establishment of the AIER, including the way Work Choices made us feel threatened and put a deeper rift between capital and labour, and the work of the Institute since then. She then moved on to discuss three court decisions she found both disappointing and which indicate there is a way to go before Australia’s workplace relations law meet the principles found in the AIER’s Charter of Employment Rights. Firstly, the very disappointing High Court decision in Commonwealth vs Barker which she argued sends a dangerous signal to employers that they need not act in good faith towards their workers and that the decision may end up having unhelpful cultural ramifications. Secondly, the High Court’s CFMEU vs BHP decision where a worker was found not to have the protection of the adverse action provisions of the Fair Work Act after being sacked for yelling “scab” on a picket line. Joellen argued this decision showed how flimsy Australia’s freedom of association rights are. Finally, she referred a Federal Court decision involving Jetstar where the Fair Work Ombudsman attempted to prosecute the airline for failing to pay minimum entitlements to cabin crew working on flights within Australia. The workers were employed by companies outside Australia while they crewed Jetstart flights within Australia. Professor Riley posed the question as to the value of minimum standards when they are so easily able to be undermined by corporate restructuring or alternative business models including utilising what is essentially labour hire. She also commended the Employment Rights Now publication and the work of the AIER in looking to tackling some of the gaps in the current regulation of work.
Professor Ewing was even less upbeat about the current state of employment rights. He focused on three problems: insecure work, the decline in freedom of association and the implications of free trade agreements. The rise of insecure work is a global problem that takes many forms, including through sham contracts and in the UK with zero hours contracts. There are apparently 1.6 million workers in the UK on contracts that guarantee no work or income. In relation to freedom of association, he lamented the decline in collective bargaining globally and the attacks on the right to strike. In the UK the Trade Union Bill does not just limit the right to strike but is concerned with limiting the power of unions to campaign in the interests of their members. He commented that we are not seeing freedom of association being translated into rights and this is having a huge impact on equality, labour standards and general well-being in society. Finally, he noted the devastating impact free trade agreements, particularly the large multi-lateral agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership, will have on labour rights. These agreements go to the lowest common denominator and while they will often contain clauses regarding compliance with the principles of ILO conventions, they do require compliance with the conventions themselves. He argued the free trade agreements we are witnessing are a licence for developed nations to reduce their labour standards.
As the last speaker, Lisa Heap brought more optimism to bear on the proceedings focusing on the approach by the AIER, its work and its future. She focused on three things:
- The importance of AIER advocating a rights based approach and the impact of AIER’s work
- The significance role that AIER has had in influencing key parties
- The difficulties in sustaining the momentum around AIER’s work.
Lisa staunchly prosecuted the argument that a human rights based approach to the workplace is valuable and that it works. She argued that the AIER Charter was the first, and remains the only, comprehensive blueprint of workplace rights in Australia that articulates universally appropriate standards based on international labour standards and that it remains as relevant today as when it was released in 2007. Lisa noted two examples of the influence of the AIER. Firslty, the intervention of the AIER in the Woolworths Ltd t/as Produce and Recycling Distribution Centres case to argue that effective dispute resolution required access to the independent umpire. Secondly, the comprehensive submission and proposals for legislative change made by the Institute to the Independent Insecure Work Inquiry. An issue the AIER will continue to work on.
Lisa’s full remarks can be read here – AIER – The next 10 years.