Workplace industrial relations on the eve of work choices: a report on a survey of employers in Queensland, NSW and Victoria

4 Sep 2007

A report on a survey of employers in Queensland, NSW and Victoria. Prepared for the Queensland Department of Employment and Industrial Relations, NSW Office of Industrial Relations and Industrial Relations Victoria.

From the executive summary:
We appear to be living in an era where major IR policy initiatives are being driven by a preoccupation with isolated pockets of union militancy. The construction industry in particular has figured prominently in recent Federal Government deliberations. As the data on problems and attitudes revealed, this is not the primary feature of our IR system. There are, however, links between the preoccupation with ‘the exceptional case’ and the preferences of many employers. Radical policy initiatives have been triggered by the alleged need to deal with exceptional problems such as those in construction. These initiatives then appear to get significant employer support as they engage with their preferences. Few employers have any problems of the kind that necessitate radical IR change – they do, however, clearly have fears and imagined problems which these policies address. Once employers have experienced power in the form of increasingly unrestricted managerial prerogative, this support is likely to solidify. Under the provisions of the Federal Government’s Work Choices legislation, this trend can be expected to continue.

The end result of changes in both policy and practice over recent years has been a reduction in the role of collectively determined and publicly recognised standards. By definition, this means there has been increased capacity for management determined arrangements to prevail. Sometimes these take the form of registered individual agreements - the most obvious, but smallest manifestation of the change. Far greater has been the increased significance of less public arrangements – things like common law contracts. Whereas once these operated in the context of a vital and encompassing award system, they now operate in a situation where tribunals have limited capacity to act and unions are highly circumscribed. In a situation where workforce reductions are commonplace even at the peak of the business cycle, it is no wonder that ‘full employment’ today does not mean the same thing for workers as it meant when the official unemployment rate was this low a generation ago. If we want to realise the full benefits of full employment – especially decent jobs worth having – new initiatives that enhance and nurture job quality are needed. The current direction of Federal IR policy is, however, moving in the opposite direction.

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