The Australian Charter of Employment Rights sets out ten principles for fair and just workplace relations laws and practices. It is a blueprint for industrial relations in Australia, and is the foundation underlying all of the work of the Australian Institute of Employment Rights’ (AIER).

The Charter was developed through the collaborative effort of seventeen of Australia’s leading industrial relations practitioners, lawyers and economists. It is a simply expressed document that unravels the complexity of the regulation of workplace relations by defining and clearly articulating the rights of employers and workers in modern workplaces.

In Employment Rights Now, AIER’s latest publication, some of Australia’s most experienced workplace relations academics and practitioners evaluate aspects of the current workplace relations systems against the Charter principles. The conclusion of Employment Rights Now is that there are many improvements that need to be made to our workplace laws, regulations and practices before the Charter principles are realised in Australia.

To what extent is any political party prepared to improve our workplace regulations in line with the Charter?

In the 2016 election campaign, AIER is using the Charter principles to assess the workplace relations policies for the three major parties.  In the hustle and bustle of an election campaign, policy is often drowned out by politics.  The following reflects on the stated policy positions of the major parties and their actions in the last parliament as well as election announcements.

The AIER comparison chart will be continually updated throughout the campaign when relevant policy announcements are made.

How policies of the major parties compare to the Australian Charter of Employment Rights

Despite the last term of government providing two significant inquiries into workplace relations – the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into the workplace relations system and Trade Union Royal Commission – there is a noticeable lack of substantive workplace relations policy debate in the current election campaign. None of the major parties have yet provided a comprehensive response to the Productivity Commission’s findings and recommendations. Nor is there much in the way of policy when it comes to addressing current concerns about the future of work and the growing insecurity and precariousness of work.

The Coalition called the ‘double dissolution’ election on the basis of the failure of the Senate to pass legislation re-establishing the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). Its budget contained aproposal for young people receiving unemployment benefits to be required to undertake “internships” for an extra $200 a fortnight for 25 hours a week work. This latest iteration of work for the dole undermines minimum employment standards and seeks to normalise low paid insecure work for young people. The only other specific workplace relations policy announcement from the Coalition has been responding to the uncovering of large scale exploitation of low wage workers. They have also publicly flagged changes for further restrictions on the content of collective bargaining agreements in the context of the firefighters dispute in Victoria.

While the Minister has indicated the Coalition will provide a response to the Productivity Commission’s report before the election, it has yet to do so. In government, the Coalition introduced legislation not only to re-establish the ABCC but also to restrict union involvement in greenfields agreements, and further restrict the taking of industrial action. The Coalition is also under increasing pressure from peak business organisations to promise more changes to the workplace relations system in the interests of business, including further “streamlining” of the system and more “flexibility”. All of these policies and positions, except for cracking down on worker exploitation, are contrary to the principles of the Charter because they seek to undermine existing standards and further restrict workers acting collectively in their interests.

Labor is at this stage not proposing any significant changes to the Fair Work Act, indicating it is comfortable with the status quo. Its workplace relations announcements  so far in the election have focused on penalty rates, cracking down on exploitation and policies for better union governance. While Labor has indicated opposition to some recommendations of the Productivity Commission report, notably changes to Sunday penalty rates and enterprise contracts, they have not provided a response to the broader findings and recommendations of the inquiry. The most visible policy from Labor is its campaign to fight for penalty rates. Labor condemned the Trade Union Royal Commission as a political witch hunt but did announce policy to reform union governance.  Generally, the positions of Labor go some way to meeting the Charter principles. However, it is disappointing that Labor is stuck defending the Fair Work Act rather than seeking to address its flaws, in particular the narrow focus of the Act on employees, and the restrictions on collective bargaining.

As the AIER has previously noted, the Greens workplace relations policy is more closely aligned with the principles and values of the Charter.  Key policy announcements made by the Greens so far focus on protecting  penalty rates through legislation, making head franchisers responsible for the wages and conditions of the workers employed by its franchisees, and providing for secure pay orders to combat growing insecurity of work.The Greens have not provided a comprehensive response to the Productivity Commission report, while opposing select recommendations such as reducing Sunday penalty rates and enterprise contracts. The Greens were also highly critical of the Trade Union Royal Commission. While the Greens have a history of critiquing the limitations of the Fair Work Act, they too are not engaging in a broader debate about the future of work and how the current laws need reform in the current election campaign.

Overall, the Coalition’s policies and positions would shift workplace regulations further away from the Charter principles. The policies of Labor and the Greens are closer to meeting the Charter principles but there remain significant gaps between their policies and the Charter principles. This analysis has been limited by the fact that few workplace relations policies have been announced during the election campaign so far. This reflects a preference to use certain workplace issues as totemic of the different sides of politics, for example union corruption for the Coalition and the threat to penalty rates for Labor, rather than to engage in a more wide ranging debate on the future of work and addressing whether our current regulatory system is appropriate and the implications for our society and economy.

So to what extent is any political party prepared to improve our workplace regulations in line with the Charter? The answer is not much.

Download the AIER’s analysis of the policies of the Coalition, Labor and the Greens as compared to the Australian Charter of Employment Rights.