R.I.P WorkChoices?


Governor-General Michael Jeffery formally proclaimed the end of Australian Workplace Agreements at 10:45am yesterday, an event coinciding with the second anniversary of the introduction of the former Howard government’s WorkChoices legislation.

The proclamation means that as of midnight last night, no new AWAs can be made. However, there seems to be some confusion in the media as to whether "Forward with Fairness" actually means the end of AWAs and the overturning of the WorkChoices regime.

Let me tell you – it doesn’t. They will be with us for some time to come.

Under the so-called Forward with Fairness arrangements, existing AWAs can continue up to and even beyond their five year nominal expiry dates, and workers (in workplaces currently using AWAs) can still be offered a new type of individual workplace agreements called an ITEA (individual transitional employment agreement) – kind of an ‘AWA-Plus’.

While the new ITEA agreements have to pass the new No Disadvantage Test, the same does not apply to AWAs that workers have been required to sign in the few months since the election. Yes, workers have been signing AWAs up until this new legislation was in place and may have to remain on them for the next five years.

In Parliament, the Greens argued there should be an opportunity within the Act for workers who are stuck on an unfair AWA to ask the Workplace Authority to assess it against the Government’s new No Disadvantage Test. If it fails the new test, then they should be able to choose to unilaterally terminate that agreement. Fair enough? Unfortunately the Government did not support our amendments.

Just as the title of WorkChoices created the impression that Howard’s workplace reforms increased workers’ choices rather than decreased them, so too the title Forward with Fairness seems to be misleading.

Our primary concern with efforts to reform our industrial relations system should be to ensure a framework of laws which support and protect the interests of the most vulnerable in our workplaces. The WorkChoices changes hit hardest those who are least advantaged in our society – young people, women, migrants, those in low-paid and so-called ‘vulnerable’ work, including casual and temporary workers. Unfortunately, these same people are likely to be the ones most affected by the half-hearted scrapping of AWAs.

The PR machines of the Labor Government are working overtime on their industrial relations spin. We are being told that after midnight on March 27, there will be no more AWAs – but that’s far from the whole truth.

AWAs are here to stay for the foreseeable future. The Government could have ensured they ended when the broader reforms come into effect in 2010, but they chose not to. They could have ensured that those on unfair AWAs could get off them, but they chose not to. They could have ensured that those AWAs still waiting to be assessed were assessed against the new fairer No Disadvantage Test, but they chose not to.

So much for the end of WorkChoices and the death of AWAs.

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