The usually quiet summer period was interrupted by the release of both the Productivity Commission’s Report into the workplace relations system just before Christmas and the Trade Union Royal Commission’s report in early January. The findings and recommendations of these reports set the scene for industrial relations to feature heavily in the election year ahead.

The AIER welcomes a renewed debate on workplace relations. Work, or its absence, is a crucial element around which we organise our lives. How work is regulated – whether by laws, policies, or organisational cultures – resonates throughout our community. The Productivity Commission focuses on the economic importance of how work is regulated, yet the social impacts and the implications for the dignity of all of us engaged in work – whether as workers or employers – are in our view as significant. It is one of the ways we we can evaluate if the economy is actually working for us as a community.

While we welcome discussion of work and how it is regulated, we also continue to be frustrated at the limited and predictable rhetoric that dominates public debate on industrial relations. Three features of the debate so far:

  • The government is using the TURC report to push for the Senate to pass its legislation to bring back the Australian Building and Construction Commission and Registered Organisations Bill;
  • Employer groups are pressuring to further strengthen the ability of employers to dictate wages and conditions; and
  • The union movement is defending existing conditions, in particular Sunday penalty rates.

These are all important issues. The AIER’s position in relation to these three issues are:

  • The AIER opposes both the ABCC and Registered Organisations bills as fundamentally contrary to the right of freedom of association.
  • The AIER stands for a fair and balanced industrial relations system and is unsurprised that employer groups are using this opportunity to push for greater managerial prerogative that in our view would further unbalance the system.
  • The AIER supports the retention of penalty rates as they are important for those who access them but the high profile of penalty rates in the debate is more a reflection of an issue that is easy to understand and campaign around.

However, both these reports have at their core a much more worrying set of assumptions and represent a consolidation and furthering of the existing movement away from collective action underpinning how workers exercise their rights at work, to an individualized and bureaucratic approach. It is a shift that has had obvious implications for unions and their membership and we would argue for the ability to create co-operative workplaces respecting the rights and responsibilities of workers and employers. At the AIER we believe fair and decent work and workplaces require recognising that workers have the right to play a part in the decisions that fundamentally affect them in the workplace.

In contrast, take for example the recommendation of the Productivity Commission for enterprise contracts which the Productivity Commission argues, “would give businesses the tailored outcome normally only achieved through enterprise bargaining, but without the complex and costly process of bargaining, while maintaining safety net conditions for employees.”(p.750)  It is a recommendation heartily embraced by business groups and being considered by the Government for introduction. Enterprise agreements essentially allow employers to create workplace contracts that suit their needs while relieving them of the burden of actually talking to their employees.

The approach of the Productivity Commission is clearly demonstrated in the introduction to its discussion of enterprise contacts – “The workplace relations (WR) system should offer employers enough choice to enable them to structure their employment arrangements consistent with their business operations, while preserving the necessary employee protections.” (p750) The employee or worker not only doesn’t get a look in on their wages and conditions but it isn’t a consideration because employees just need to be “protected” according to the Productivity Commission. But what about employees and workers having a say in the conditions of their work that offer more than protection from exploitation? What about negotiating working conditions that provide for dignity at work, satisfaction with work, or that are meeting the needs of employees? Enterprise contracts represent a further step away from developing a culture of cooperative workplaces.

At the AIER we also strongly defend the rights of workers to organise collectively in their social and economic interests. Freedom of association is a fundamental human right for a reason. Without it, people are reduced to mere commodities in their working lives. The recommendations from the Trade Union Royal Commission, if implemented, will fundamentally undermine freedom of association and are predicated on a falsity that unions are comparable to corporations. Unions are democratic institutions comprising a membership of people. Corporations are legal entities with duties to shareholders, who are more likely than not to be other corporations.

You need look no further than the recommendation that parliament should decide who can be union officials for a specific union to appreciate how deeply anti-democratic is the approach taken by the Royal Commission. It is also part of a broader trend of cracking down on freedom of association when corporate interests are threatened. Other examples include the anti-protest laws passed in Tasmania and Victoria (although recently repealed in Victoria) and proposed in Western Australia.

None of this is to say that the union movement is not in all sorts of trouble with low membership and internal structural issues. Nor is it to ignore the findings of the Royal Commission that amount to criminal conduct. These are matters that the union movement must grapple with if it is to survive and continue to be the primary means by which workers exercise their collective voice.

Why is enhancing the collective voice of workers important? Why should we resist the underlying assumptions within the Productivity Commission and TURC reports? A just and equal society requires freedom of association and the right for workers not just to organise but to act collectively in their interests. This fundamental assumption was central to the establishment of international labour standards developed after the two horrendous world wars of the 20th century. The understanding at that time was that universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice, a concept that remains relevant in these changing and unstable times.