What is labour law doing about 'partnership at work'? British and Australian developments compared

Labour force Law Economic development Australia Great Britain

The key concern of Richard Mitchell and Anthony O'Donnell in this paper is how statutory labour law in Britain and Australia is being reconstructed in the light of the 'partnership' idea.

"This necessarily entails some examination of contrasting notions of partnership: which understanding of partnership prevails is important because it will arguably be reflected in the trajectory of statutory labour law. When law makers mandate the formation of partnerships at work they are often not only attempting to encourage a higher incidence of partnerships, but also to influence their character. Unilateral co-operation by employees might entail an enhancement of managerial prerogative — through, say, the fettering of trade union power and the stripping back of minimum standards — and little more: what we have come to recognise as a ‘deregulatory’ agenda. Collaborative partnership, based on mutual and reciprocal co-operation, however, might be characterised by various regulatory initiatives (or re-regulation) which either strengthen employees' collective representation and collective voice within workplaces or provide the mechanisms that increase individual employees’ stake in the firm and its organisational success. Whilst legislative initiatives cannot force the parties to cooperate, legislation can specify the institutions of partnership, the level of the business hierarchy at which they are to operate, the parties that are to be involved, the range of matters which are to be determined in partnership, and so on. All of these factors impact upon the type of partnership which is fostered, as well as influencing the likelihood that the parties will adopt or participate in the institution.

The paper explores some of the contrasting meanings of partnership. We do this by exploring the debate around partnership in Britain, where the partnership agenda, at least in political terms, is well advanced, and trying to discern whether 'partnership' refers to a form of labour-management co-operation based on high involvement workplaces, collective representation of employees and mutual co-operation, or whether it simply refers to employee acquiescence to management power, or some mixture of these, depending on context. We examine both the origins of the agenda and how it has played out in practice. We then move to a key concern of our inquiry: do ideas about partnership at work help us in characterising the nature of contemporary labour law in Britain? We then go on to explore the trajectory of Australian labour law over the past decade or so from a similar perspective. Australian industrial relations share a strong adversarial or pluralist tradition with Britain. We note the absence to a large degree of any formal ‘partnership’ agenda in Australia. However, discourses that are the functional equivalent of partnership at work are clearly emerging in Australian labour law policy. Again, our main concern is whether recent shifts in the statutory appearance or formal apparatus of contemporary Australian labour law can be accounted for by reference to an emerging idea of 'partnership at work'."

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