Industrial relations appears to be one of the big issues this election. The current Government has copped a lot of flak about its WorkChoices reforms (not that they refer to it as WorkChoices any more...). Here's a bit of a break down about where the two major parties stand:
Australian Labor Party
Industrial relations has long been at the hearts of the Labor Party's policies, probably because it was the very issue the party was founded to fight. This election, a promise to roll back WorkChoices is one of the Labor Party's big ticket items.
Traditionally, the Labor Party's policies on industrial relations flowed from their class-based collectivist philosophy - that the interests of employers and employees are always opposed and cannot be reconciled. Therefore, workers need protections - there need to be mechanisms to ensure that workers are not exploited too much by their employers and employees must be able to join together in collective action to fight for their rights/conditions, thus a special role is afforded to trade unions.
However, this traditional ideology is changing - at this election more than ever before. Labor's industrial relations policies are now founded on a more individualist base, but a base of individual rights. The key points of their industrial relations policy are:
- A stronger safety net - ten minimum conditions enshrined in legislation
- Awards applying to the majority of Australian workers which can expand on these ten minimum conditions and also contain an additional ten matters
- Employers and employees can make collective statutory agreements (statutory, because their operation will be governed by the industrial relations legislation, rather than operating as a common law contract). Unions can represent employees when bargaining for a collective agreement. If a majority of employees in a business want a collective agreement, their employer must bargain with them for it in good faith. Employees must be better off overall under an agreement compared to their award.
- Industrial action, such as strikes, is available to both employers and employees when they are formally bargaining for a collective agreement. Workers can go on strike or take other industrial action in support of their bargaining claims if they vote to do so in a secret ballot (subject to certain restrictions).
- No individual statutory agreements (i.e. abolishing AWAs)
- Greater individual flexibility will be guaranteed in awards and statutory agreements. Common law contracts for high paid workers will also be exempt from some regulation.
- All workers can make a claim if they feel they have been unfairly dismissed, although not during their first six months of employment, or during their first 12 months of employment if in a small business
- Simplified institutional arrangements, making it easier for businesses and workers to get help from the government
- Otherwise retain existing industrial relations laws in most ways
Of course, the ALP will probably change various other parts of the existing legislation to make it more 'friendly' to employees.
The Liberal Party's approach to industrial relations is premised on a rejection of the traditional Labor view that the interests of workers and employees are diametrically opposed. Instead, the underpinning ideology is that their interests are ultimately aligned. For example, employees, like their bosses, will want their business to be successful to ensure they stay in jobs and so they can advance in salary. This also implies a rejection of the traditional collectivist model, hence an emphasis on workplace relations rather than industrial (or industry-wide) relations and a reduction of third-party interference by the government or unions.
In addition, the Liberal Party's views about free enterprise and minimal state involvement implies a system where the government makes very little regulation about employment relations, allowing employers and employees free reign to contract for employment however they see fit. The WorkChoices legislation did this in some way by lowering the safety net when employers and employees made agreements (i.e. contracting on whatever terms they saw fit, not to a high standard set by the Government), reducing the ability for unions to insert themselves into the employment relationship, reducing the role of the Government in setting the safety net (minimising the role of awards and the number of conditions they contain), and various minor provisions that together acted to limit the ability of unions to get involved in the employment relationship. Some of these aspects have been rolled back a little with the introduction of the Fairness Test for statutory agreements this year.
The key points of the Liberal Party's workplace relations policy (based on existing legislation plus election commitments) are:
- Five minimum conditions of employment enshrined in legislation, including minimum wages (formerly award wages) which are set by an independent Government body, the Australian Fair Pay Commission (wage setting must also take into account the needs of the unemployed).
- Employers and employees can make collective agreements (with or without union involvement) or individual statutory agreements (AWAs). These are subject to a Fairness Test, which means that an employee must be at least as well off as they were under their existing monetary-related award conditions (but other award matters need not be considered).
- Industrial action, such as strikes, is available to both employers and employees when they are formally bargaining for a collective agreement. Workers can go on strike or take other industrial action in support of their bargaining claims if they vote to do so in a secret ballot (subject to certain restrictions). Workers on AWAs cannot take industrial action.
- No unfair dismissal claims for workers in business employing less than 100 people. A dismissal is also fair when it is made for reasons tat include genuine operational reasons.
As you can see, the two policies aren't so different - I think that Sen. Barnaby Joyce was correct today when he said so. The main differences are that Labor will ease restrictions on unfair dismissal laws, increase the safety net of minimum conditions (legislation and awards), prevent individual statutory agreements (but not individual common law contracts) being made, give employees the right to force their employer to bargain and increase individual flexibility provisions. The likely impact of these changes may include some increase in conditions of employment for low paid workers and the potential for more industrial action by employees (existing workers covered by AWAs could force their employer to bargain, and they could then go on strike in support of their claims). It probably won't lead to centralised wage fixing like in the old days, as the Liberal party tends to claim.
Now, here's where it gets tricky: the Liberal party argues that a lower safety net and less access to unfair dismissal claims increases employment, because it is cheaper and less risky for businesses (especially small ones) to take on new staff. However, other economists argue that this may not actually be true in practice, and that is too hard to attribute the fall in unemployment over the last eighteen months to WorkChoices. Alternatively, Labor might argue that it is better to maintain decent appropriate standards for workers, and the government should try to foster employment in different ways and maintain a fair social security safety net for people who are unemployed.
A Christian perspective
I posit that we are created for work - God works, in creating the universe and in other ways, and we are created in God's image. Adam, from the start, is set to work tending the garden and hard work is encouraged throughout the Bible. Work is hard (after the fall), but it is our lot in life and we must work. Therefore, reducing unemployment is important - we should encourage people to work and create conditions whereby they can find work. Now, other than saying that the worker deserves his wages, the Bible doesn't have a great deal to say about fair minimum conditions, or the rights of workers to join together in a union, or rights to take industrial action.
So, when looking at workplace/industrial relations policies from a Christian perspective, you must weigh up:
- Is reducing unemployment the most important goal, or is it also important to ensure that workers receive fair (however defined) conditions?
- Is freedom to act in an employment relationship however you wish important or should the Government act to restrict that freedom to ensure equitable outcomes?
- For that matter, should the Government legislate for more equitable outcomes at all, or should it merely act to ensure that people don't fall below the poverty line (if you accept that the Government should do this at all)? And, should the Government legislate so that the onus for ensuring that people are paid 'fairly' is put on employers (rather, for example, than on the Government itself)?
I'm sure that you can add to this list, but that should give you a starting point for comparing up the major views on this issue.