The union movement has already compromised with Fair Work; Scott Morrison’s post-covid reforms could degrade union power to levels worse than WorkChoices.
On May 26th, Scott Morrison’s government walked away from the ‘Ensuring Integrity’ bill which was crafted to bust unions and their remaining power in the labour market. This has been marketed by Morrison as a good faith move to promote Sally McManus and the union movement to leave the “weapons” at the door in completely revamping the industrial relations system. This complete ‘revamp’ will include Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter mediating between union leaders, women’s groups, business groups, multicultural community leaders and regional representatives to reach a new deal in the future of the labour market laws and regulations.
This “renegotiation” is reminiscent of the marketing of previous changes to labour law and regulations. Hawke’s Accords of the 80s, Keating’s decentralized wage determination of ’96. Howard’s WorkChoices scheme of the 00s. Even the Fair Act came with promises of a ‘balancing’ of the industrial relations system from both Rudd and then Gillard with her government’s reforms to the Act. Morrison’s message is nothing new; it must be noted that labour law and regulations should be consistently revised in order to ensure it is not falling behind workflows and trends. Casualisation is becoming a growing epidemic, insecure work is increasing, shorter contracts are prevalent, the gig economy is thriving without real regulation. These trends need to be addressed far better than they are currently.
Consistently, studies and journal articles are showing the failures of Fair Work in addressing these trends. One notable article from Steven Clibborn and Chris Wright goes into detail about the failures of the state in response to the wage theft of migrant workers (“Employer theft of temporary migrant workers’ wages in Australia: Why has the state failed to act?” The Economic and Labour Relations Review, Vol. 29 Iss. 2; 2018). The holes in Fair Work’s legislation flagrantly and consistently shows up in other cases too. Take Section 65 of the Act, where an employee may only request flexible working arrangements from employers with no guarantees of the request being accepted. Another example is compliance investigations from the Fair Work Ombudsman being reliant on employees coming forward to Fair Work and engaging in a lengthy trial system; which is difficult to navigate especially for migrant workers looking for wage redress. There is even legislation that actively attempts to dissuade union action with requirements to be allowed to strike (see Sections 413, 414, 459).
This is a labour law and regulation scheme that needs drastic change. These are just some of the issues with the Fair Work Act, bar mention of the problems with the National Employment Standards, the lack of coverage for contract workers and casuals or the erosion of awards schemes and of other union powers.
This is a piece of legislation brought in by a Labor government; a party whose heart lies in the union movement, who won the 2007 election on the issue of industrial relations, who promised to protect workers from the worst of the WorkChoices legislation. Though it must be said subsequent Liberal Governments have eroded the Fair Work Act over the past seven years and Fair Work is fundamentally still better than WorkChoices. Labor did ultimately fail in its balancing act, but it is still the best attempt to bring negotiation powers to workers since the 80s. Still, it brings to question the legitimacy of Morrison’s claim that the redrawing of the labour law and regulations will be a ‘consultative’ process. If we can’t fully trust a Labor government to bring in effective reform to the labour market; how can we even begin to trust Scott Morrison?
Morrison represents a party hell-bent on eroding the rights of workers across this country for the favour of business interests, who sees the unions as a roadblock to peak labour market efficiency. If the union movement decides to lay down its arms in this renegotiation of the labour laws and regulations; we may see even worse outcomes for the union movement. Even with Morrison shelving Ensuring Integrity, a party capable of crafting a union busting bill like that is surely not going to be perfect mediators in this proposed consultation group.
Ultimately, Industrial Relations reform has been brewing within Liberal think tanks and offices for a few years. What has held this off is a fear of a repeat of Kevin 07. Covid-19 and an impending recession has eliminated these fears. Sally McManus and other union leaders have a difficult task ahead in protecting the union movement without risking the Liberals locking them out of this new system completely. As seen by the Jobkeeper and Jobseeker initiatives, union leaders are up for the challenge, but the outcome of this consultation period still holds grave concerns - for unions, for workers, and for Australia.
Hektor Vineburg is a student activist studying Industrial Relations at the University of Sydney.