Work Choices Versus Fair Work
There is no question that Howard’s Work Choices was unpopular.
Malcolm Turnbull’s reluctance to say whether or not the coalition will re-introduce individual workplace contracts if it wins power, has seen him labelled a “Work Choices addict”, which is unlikely to win him many supporters.
So what was it about Work Choices that was so unpopular?
One of the main criticisms was the loss of unfair dismissal laws. With Work Choices, the coalition attempted to diminish the power of trade unions, seen as having too much influence. Employers were effectively given the power to sack workers with little restriction or accountability. AWA’s (Australian Workplace Agreements) enabled employers to create individual employee contracts, and gave employees less bargaining power in terms of pay, hours and dismissal.
So Work Choices was generally thought to be unfair to workers. There were a vast number of media-reported stories last year where employees had their hours cut, or were sacked unfairly with no option for legal recompense.
There has always been animosity between trade unions, which protect workers’ rights, and businesses, which see unions as holding them up from getting on with the job. The Liberal Party is traditionally anti-union, and the Labor Party pro-worker, so continued political debate on this issue is unsurprising. The Rudd government was naturally going to make some changes.
So what has changed with Fair Work Australia?
The Fair Work Act replaced Work Choices in July. Key to the new legislation is the re-introduction of unfair dismissal laws and new enterprise bargaining rules. It’s a positive change for workers.
But there is some confusion about how the new legislation affects businesses and workers. A complete overhaul of the industrial relations system means there’s a lot to decipher in a short time.
According to Kym Luke, employment law specialist at Stacks Law Firm in Ballina, “It’s going to take a while for employers and workers to get up to speed. It will be a good 12 months or so before we see whether the changes are successful or not.”
While more employees are now eligible to claim for unfair dismissal, workers who don’t understand the new rules may miss the deadline, as the time between being unfairly dismissed and lodging a claim is only 14 days. And Kym Luke is finding that businesses that don’t yet grasp the new laws are continuing to dismiss employees unfairly.
Those who oppose the Rudd changes say there is now too much regulation, meaning an increase in costs for employers, and therefore a risk that businesses will employ fewer people.
It’s early days. Legislation with the worker’s interests at its core will undoubtedly be popular. Time will tell as to Fair Work’s overall success.