THE WORKPLACE Ombudsman has fined a number of companies and launched investigations into others following allegations that their employees are being forced onto Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) ahead of new laws expected to be tabled next month in federal Parliament that will ban AWAs.
Zinifex Australia is being prosecuted by the workplace regulator in the Federal Court of Australia for allegedly applying duress to four workers in connection with an Australian Workplace Agreement (AWA) at the company’s former Hobart smelter.
“Duress to a worker by anyone in connection with a workplace agreement is intolerable and utterly unlawful. We have warned all participants in the workplace many times that we will prosecute those we allege to have engaged in such conduct as with Zinifex and we will continue to do so,” said Workplace Ombudsman Nicholas Wilson.
Zinifex applied undue pressure in connection with AWAs to four employees of Skilled Group and the TESA Group when they were working at Zinifex’s former Hobart smelter, according to Wilson.
The duress is alleged to have consisted of threats to the workers that their services would no longer be required by Zinifex if they did not agree to AWAs offered by their employers Skilled and TESA.
Zinifex’s acting CEO, Tony Barnes, has denied the accusations. “Put simply, this is not the way Zinifex conducts its business,” he said.
The matter will be heard in the Federal Court from 5 February.
Wilson has also confirmed that it recently commenced an investigation into allegations that duress was being applied to Telstra workers to re-sign AWAs.
At the commencement of the investigation, meetings were held with both Telstra and senior representatives of the Australian Council of Trade Unions and unions from which allegations were received from the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union (CEPU) and the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU).
According to a CPSU spokesman, the reports of duress also come just months before the commencement of negotiations for a new collective enterprise agreement for Telstra employees, which are set to begin in March this year.
The CPSU spokesman said that Telstra has been giving employees inaccurate and incomplete comparisons between what they would stand to get under an AWA and a collective agreement.
“There is a climate of fear and people feel as though they’re being strong-armed into locking into these five-year contracts … People are being told that if they don’t sign AWAs they could potentially lose their redundancy entitlements,” the CPSU spokesman said.
Telstra’s group general counsel, Will Irving, has confirmed that staff are being offered the opportunity to sign a new agreement, but he denied that employees have been subject to any duress.
“We welcome their investigation, [but] we have not been rushing people onto AWAs. We have a significant number of staff on AWAs and they’ve been given a choice – it’s a free choice. They can decide to take up the offer of an AWA which will effectively extend its term beyond the change to the law and that’s entirely consistent with the government’s policy … but it’s a free choice. We’re not coercing people into signing AWAs,” he said.
The Workplace Ombudsman has also launched an investigation into allegations made by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) that the University of Wollongong has also been trying to lock staff into AWA individual contracts before the Labor Government’s legislation takes effect.
New staff members at the university’s medical school are being asked to sign AWAs that are inferior to the collective agreement negotiated by the NTEU, according to the ACTU.
The university’s AWAs run for five years without guaranteed annual pay rises. They also remove significant employment conditions compared to the collective agreement, including some allowances, leave provisions, levels of redundancy pay and protections for academic freedom, the ACTU said.
The university said it had been offering AWAs to new staff for the past two years and had done nothing wrong. “The graduate school of medicine offers a unique approach to medical education and, as such, requires flexibility in resource management,” the university said in a statement.