In an article published in the National Institute of Labour Studies’s Australian Bulletin of Labour, five legal academics from the Centre for Employment and Labour Relations Law at the University of Melbourne have concluded that the federal government’s WorkChoices legislation is likely to bring about revolutionary change to rights and entitlements of workers and thetraditional processes of Australian industrial regulation.
John Howe, Richard Mitchell, Jill Murray, Anthony O’Donnell and Glenn Patmore identify the most significant changes proposed by the Coalition to the current system as being in four key areas: the regulation of minimum standards; the enterprise bargaining regime; unfair dismissal; and the proposal for a national industrial relations system.
Paradoxically, the stripping back of labour rights and institutions will be achieved not through ‘deregulation’ (the abstention from the use of law) but through a complex system of voluminous regulation. New institutions will be created to create and police workplace standards. If anything, a greater role for mainstream law will be generated by this prescriptive re-regulation of the labour market.
Despite the increased role for law, elements of the new system are less publicly accountable and open to democratic participation than the institutions they replace. The traditional reliance on notions of the public and interest and fairness (established by law under the old Act) has been overridden. Minimum labour standards protected by law must now be designed to create employment. Basically, all other entitlements apart from very basic conditions must be bargained for in circumstances in which the collective power of workers is likely to be diminished.
WorkChoices shows that the government is engineering a fundamental shift in power from labour to capital. Despite the government’s rhetoric around choice, it is being highly prescriptive about what the parties to an employment relationship can and cannot bargain for.