This week, the Australian coalition government led by prime minister Scott Morrison said it will no longer pursue its proposed union-busting legislation “as a sign of good faith”.
Instead Morrison says he will encourage Australian unions and business to take part in a four-month negotiation to solve a number of industrial relations issues. The Australian government will also attach ‘conditions’ to $1.5billion Australian dollars in funding for skills.
Morrison announced that there would be five priority areas for reform. These include changes to the Australian ‘awards system’, collective bargaining for workplace pay deals, casualisation and fixed-term employment, compliance and enforcement to ensure workers are paid properly and agreements on greenfield sites and new projects.
Employers and unions made ditching the Ensuring Integrity Bill as pre-condition of taking part in the discussions.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary, Sally McManus, cautiously welcomed the initiative, saying she was “glad to see the 20-year ritual of union-bashing stop”.
But she warned job creation will take more than industrial reforms, and said the government must reconsider ending wage subsidies in September and to reinvest in skills and education.
A more flexible and productive workplace relations system can be achieved, without compromising fairness.
But reaching an agreement will be difficult. The ACTU has already rejected the employers ‘wish list’ for the talks.
Morrison, who was roundly criticised in Australia because of the government’s and his personal handling of the recent devastation caused by bush fires said it “never has been” his government’s policy to weaken trade unions.
Yet one of his first pieces of employment legislation following his re-election was the ‘Ensuring Integrity’ legislation, designed to increase powers to de-register unions and disqualify union officials from holding office and the power to stop unions merging to create more powerful organisations.
The Ensuring Integrity Bill was defeated in Parliament in November last year after unions (including allies in the International Trade Union movement including the TUC and Unite) lobbied independent MPs to oppose the bill. The bill was lost, but Morrison’s government have been looking for an opportunity to re-introduce it.
Australian Unions played a major role during the Covid-19 pandemic, helping secure a $70 billion ‘job keeper’ wage subsidy. They have won praise for negotiating increased flexibility to adapt to Covid-19 trading restrictions.
In a letter to Australia’s union members Sally McManus said:
“Not only did you beat back every attempt to make it law in the parliament, you have shown the government throughout the pandemic that Australia only works because of working people.
The announcement that the union bashing bill has been withdrawn provides us an opportunity to focus on the real issues faced by working people. Secure jobs, fair pay and safe workplaces.”
The ACTU eight point plan to rebuild jobs and the Australian economy can be read here.
Tony Burke is Unite Assistant General Secretary and the TUC General Council lead on employment and union rights.
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