MIL-OSI Australia: OPINION: Labor IR agenda only the beginning

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Source: Australian Mines and Metals Association – AMMA

By AREEA Chief Executive Steve Knott

With the Government’s so-called Closing Loopholes legislation passed, employer organisations and law firms are busily briefing their members and clients on the potential impacts.

Many employers are hostile to the changes, moreover because they are little more than industrial relations upheaval in search of problems and accompanied by increased and unnecessary business costs.

Policy makers have failed to articulate how these new laws will address the nation’s falling productivity growth.

And that’s indicative of union interests prevailing over the national interest.

Take the new right for workers to disconnect from their employers.

The Australian Financial Review reported recently that unions were demanding “crystal clear” rights to guard against “availability creep and unpaid overtime”.

Employer groups have signalled they will oppose such moves.

Unlike many of the new IR changes, this issue resonates broadly with the community.

Next time you’re in a food court, on a train or simply walking down the street, regard those on an earpod-enabled call or otherwise glued to their smartphone or laptop.

AREEA CEO Steve Knott

People by their very nature are highly connected, including to their work activities.

The new laws won’t change anything.

Employees working across multiple time zones or who have out of so-called normal hours contact may need their employment contract updated to highlight this feature of their work and ensure their remuneration accounts for it.

Many employment contracts already specify this, and the chance of somebody running off to the FWC to seek an order for a right to disconnect from their employer, I expect, will be remote.

Far more significantly, the Commission will insert a new union delegates’ rights provision into all modern awards by July 1.

Many employers are steeling themselves to pay for employees’ time off so unions can train them to be activists in their business. Already occurring in enterprise bargaining negotiation are provisions for delegates to be paid an allowance (again, by their employer and not the union) and for new starters to be introduced to union delegates for “discussions” prior to commencement.

On the balance of probabilities, the freedom for new starters not to join the union seems unlikely to be a focus of such dialogue.

Is there more to come on Labor’s IR agenda?

I expect so.

At the ACTU Congress in Adelaide last week, abolishing junior rates of pay and paid reproductive leave were among the productivity-bruising policies put.

Unions are also tilling the soil to promote portable long service leave entitlements.

If successful, this change will saddle employers with long service leave costs even if the employee stays with them for only a year or two, an impost many small to medium businesses just can’t afford.

Doubtless, unions will couch this as seeking to improve entitlements for their members. But what’s really going on is heightened advocacy for IR changes that increase union membership and revenues.

The saying comes to mind: “Always back the horse named self-interest, at least it will be trying.”

It is well documented that in Australia, the Labor Party and the union movement are joined at the hip.

However, in 1986, 46 per cent or 3 million of the nation’s workers were trade union members.

If that level had been maintained, almost 6 million Australians would be union members today.

Instead, the number is around 1.4 million.

This near terminal decline in union rank-and-file is replicated in other advanced economies.

When all the dust settles on the Government’s industrial relations reforms, I suspect trade union membership in Australia will continue to diminish because most workers and new workforce entrants simply don’t join unions.

With new laws forcing some employers into enterprise bargaining, expect groups such as Unions NSW, the ACTU and various affiliates to again seek legislative changes to charge non-union members enterprise bargaining fees.

Throw in other union fundraising iterations such as the AWU calling on skilled migrants to be made default union members  … the list will go on.

Were Labor ultimately to cave to union pressure and introduce compulsory union membership and/or bargaining fees … as Yes Minister’s Sir Humphrey Appelby often put it … “that would be a courageous decision, Minister”.