Kirsty Needham and Stephanie Peatling
July 2, 2009
UNEASY employer groups lined up beside the triumphant ACTU president, Sharan Burrow, and the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, to face the full bench of the nation’s new workplace tribunal yesterday.
Fair Work Australia replaces the Australian Industrial Relations Commission in an expanded role in which it will set minimum wages and adjudicate collective agreements – heralding a significantly altered industrial relations landscape.
The acting chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Greg Evans, told Fair Work Australia that in the difficult economic climate many businesses were struggling to maintain viability and employment levels.
The chamber is concerned about the effect of unfair dismissal laws on small business and noted Fair Work Australia had already appointed 25 roaming conciliators that it said highlighted an expected “upsurge in claims”. All employers were also now facing widened anti-discrimination provisions, it said.
Outside the tribunal Mr Evans warned unions against going “too hard too early” under the new workplace laws and said this would threaten not only the existence of their members’ jobs “but potentially Australia’s economic recovery”.
“Unfortunately, employers are now required to sit down at the bargaining table despite unions making irresponsible wage claims,” he said.
However Ms Gillard said employers should be celebrating the introduction of a system “that matches the will of the Australian community, that ends the era of division”.
“Employers can look to this system as one that is simpler, has less red tape and enables them to bargain at the enterprise level in good faith,” she said. “And gives them a safety net that is simple to understand rather than thousands of complex pages which employers had to struggle with in the past.”
She said it was to be expected “that unions will make claims on behalf of their members, you would expect that employers will respond to those claims … what matters is what happens at the enterprise level where representatives of employers and employees will sit down and work out a deal that is best for their enterprise”.
Unions have moved quickly to test the new system. The hospitality union, the LHMEU, has lodged an application to bargain collectively for agreements on behalf of low-paid staff at 15 hotels. The Australian Workers Union also signalled the start of a campaign to increase membership in 100 workplaces.
The Treasurer, Wayne Swan, dismissed a call by the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union for a wage increase of 4 per cent as an “ambit claim”.
The Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, urged wage restraint on the first day of the new industrial relations system, saying employers and workers had a responsibility to remember the fragile state of the economy.
Telstra, the ACTU and three communications unions yesterday jointly released a set of principles for bargaining in good faith under the Fair Work laws.