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Ben Schneiders and Misha Schubert February 23, 2009

OPPOSITION to the Federal Government’s overhaul of workplace laws is hardening, with calls for delays of up to a year for the introduction of new unfair dismissal rules.

The laws — which are planned to take effect from July 1 — would particularly affect small businesses, which under WorkChoices are exempt from claims. The push for a delay by the Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry comes amid stronger opposition to the Government’s Fair Work Bill from the Liberals and other employer groups. The laws are yet to pass the Senate and could face significant amendments, with a Senate inquiry to report by Friday.

VECCI head of workplace relations David Gregory said the Government must review its decision on unfair dismissal because of concerns about rising unemployment and a weaker economy. “The decision should be deferred for 12 months, when the situation can again be reviewed,” he said. Mr Gregory said while the Government’s plans on unfair dismissal were consistent with its pre-election commitments, the economic situation had changed dramatically and the laws were a disincentive to job creation.

There are about 40 unfair dismissal claims a week in Victoria, compared to more than 110 a week more than a decade ago, he said.

But unions have argued the Government’s unfair dismissal laws do not go far enough and are less worker-friendly than before WorkChoices.

In evidence to the Senate hearings in Canberra, the Minerals Council of Australia made clear its concerns over the proposed laws. Council chief executive Mitch Hooke singled out four provisions for condemnation — an expansion of union right of entry, giving unions access to the records of non-union members, “broader than necessary” rules compelling “good faith” bargaining, and making unions the default bargaining agent for their members. Mr Hooke said they exceeded the mandate given to Labor at the 2007 election and contradicted assurances it had given.

But a spokeswoman for Deputy Prime Minister and Workplace Minister Julia Gillard poured cold water on any expectations that Labor would make substantive changes to the bill. Dr John Buchanan of Sydney University’s Workplace Research Centre said the Government had “overwhelmingly stuck to its commitments” in drafting the bill. Dr John Howe, who heads Melbourne University’s Centre for Employment and Labour Relations Law, said business was overstating its claim that Labor had reneged on its commitments. But because some of its election policies were written so broadly, he said it was understandable that some of the detailed drafting decisions would have surprised or rankled some stakeholders.


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