Employers call for changes to industrial relations

By: Paul Howell


Employers tell the Productivity Commission the existing industrial relations framework favours staff and unions.

Employers call for changes to industrial relations
Linfox wants union right of entry provisions removed.

 

Employer groups are adamant Australia’s current industrial relations regime is in need of an overhaul.

Submissions to the Productivity Commission’s current inquiry into the workplace relations framework offer a comprehensive wish-list of changes to bargaining rules, industrial action protections, unfair dismissal laws, and penalty rates, among other issues.

The Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VECCI) says the existing enterprise bargaining framework is "not balanced" and "not effective" in delivering reasonable conditions for business.

"Our members are reporting a number of significant problems with a system containing little consideration for employers’ needs and challenges in difficult economic circumstances," it says.

This comes in part from the "overly prescriptive and confusing" procedural requirements the Fair Work Act demands before enterprise agreements can be approved.

"The current operation of ‘union-only Greenfields agreements’ is (also) resulting in cost blowouts and delays to projects, and results in an unbalanced negotiating advantage to unions," the VECCI says.

Port operator Qube sees a need to redefine the "good faith bargaining" that both unions and employers are required to conduct.

"Negotiations during workplace bargaining are often frustrated and fuelled by adversarial and acrimonious approaches that verge on abusive and bullying conduct," the company says.

"The process becomes unworkable without access to an independent arbitrator."

It suggests amendments to the Fair Work Act to state explicitly that bargaining should only cover matters pertaining to the employment relationship, and that parties do not have to respond to any other proposals.

Private transport operator Linfox is keen to remove right of entry provisions from the statutes. It says employees do not have difficulties contacting their union, and the right for union officials to meet face-to-face with their members is one of convenience, not necessity.

"This section (of the Act) confers no direct benefit to employees," the Linfox submission states.

"To the extent that an employee derives any benefit, it is the indirect benefit of having convenient access to union officials at the workplace."

The company goes on to explain how right of entry provisions allowed a business-sapping union membership drive to take place over two months at its dry goods storage and distribution facility in Truganina, west Melbourne.

Asciano highlights the severe costs that industrial action has had on its business, noting also that strikes and lockouts also damage the trust and working relationship between employee and employer.

"Revenue growth within Asicano’s terminals and logistics business for the financial year ended 30 June 2012 was impacted by the cost of industrial disputes at the revenue line of $11.3 million," the company says.

"The costs both to employees and employers of industrial action can have an effect that is the opposite of forcing progress in negotiations and can operate as a wedge driving parties further apart."

Asciano suggests a raft of improvements to the existing arrangements for industrial action. In particular, it says the Fair Work Commission should have more discretion in ordering ballots for protected industrial actions and denying actions based on excessive demands.

Unions should also be required to provide detailed substantiations of planned industrial actions, the company says.

The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) produced a highly critical submission to the Productivity Commission’s inquiry, effectively dismissing the political context for the investigation.

"The MUA sees proposals to change the existing workplace relations system when they are promoted by economically-rationalist policy makers as dangerous," the union summarises.

"To date, increased concentrations of wealth, a lack of action about unemployment, increased insecure work, and a decrease in legal rights are the overarching components of increased productivity when measured from economic rationalist perspectives."

The MUA says there are safety concerns in the stevedoring and offshore oil and gas sectors, and warns against shortcuts to effective systems and processes.

"It is a well-known fact that the work intensification that is often associated with efforts to improve ‘productivity’ can lead to increased fatality and injury levels, and higher levels of stress in workers," the union says.

It urged the commission to take an "evidence-based" approach to its recommendations, and "to treat the vested interests of some businesses and their ideological views with great caution".

The Productivity Commission inquiry has received over 140 submissions from individuals, businesses, unions, non-government organisations and businesses since publishing its issues papers in January.

It is expected to produce the first draft report for the inquiry in July this year.

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