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May 18, 2012

...BHP chairman Jac Nasser. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones

BHP Billiton has one key goal in demanding reform of industrial relations law: it wants its managers to be free to manage the business as they see fit.

The issue is not primarily about wages, or productivity, but power. BHP wants to get the unions out of its decision making.

In the wake of BHP chairman Jac Nasser’s broadside on Wednesday against the Fair Work Act, the mining tax and Australia’s high-cost economy, Employment Minister Bill Shorten hit back, blaming BHP itself for its problems.

”If a company is struggling to persuade its long-standing workforce of the case for change, then perhaps the problem isn’t just the law, maybe it’s the way the case is being put, and the engagement of the workforce,” Mr Shorten said.

The ACTU Congress condemned ”BHP’s pursuit of safety deregulation, that would transfer vital safety roles from qualified workers on the job to management”. It declared support for the 3500 coalmine workers in Queensland’s Bowen Basin in their 18-month campaign of industrial action against the BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA).

BHP sees it differently. The list of complaints in its submission to the review of the Fair Work Act is mind-numbing in detail. Most relate to just one of its five key principles of industrial relations: ”management’s retention of the ultimate responsibility and right to run the business – with employee consultation not elevated to a right of veto over operational decision making”.

”BHP Billiton contends that the legitimate sphere of enterprise agreements is entitlements for employees in respect of their wages and conditions of employment,” it says. The Fair Work Act, it argues, goes beyond that, to allow ”interference with managerial decision making”.

The submission was lodged in February, two months before BMA took the drastic step of closing its Norwich Park coalmine, in part due to industrial action led by the Construction, Forestry and Mining Employees Union over a proposed enterprise bargaining agreement.

The agreement, which would cover the mines operated by the BMA in central Queensland, offers annual wage rises of 5 per cent for the next three years, plus a production bonus of $15,000 a year. It was rejected overwhelmingly by workers at meetings last October. But a postal ballot approved by Fair Work Australia is now under way to seek a second opinion from workers.

In its submission, BHP lists 18 union claims in the dispute that it calls ”beyond what is reasonable or necessary for the protection of employees”.

They include union demands that:

■Delegates be paid for time off to deal with member issues, attend union meetings, including preparation time for meeting conveners.

■Delegates be able to use mobile phones at all times, regardless of safety rules.

■Employees not be suspended during investigations into their conduct, or disciplined for breaching BHP’s code of conduct.

■Contractors and labour hire workers – now most of BHP’s workforce – be paid the same as the minority of employees.

The submission goes well beyond that. BHP wants to be free to conclude individual agreements with high-income employees (such as miners). It wants to tighten the rules on pattern bargaining, union officials’ right of entry, union representation and a dozen other issues.

The review, headed by Reserve Bank board member John Edwards – who 20 years ago was point man for then prime minister Paul Keating in the reforms to introduce enterprise bargaining – will hand its report to Mr Shorten by May 31.

Its terms of reference, however, aim to limit it to reporting whether the act is working as intended.

Tim Colebatch is economics editor.

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