HR concerns over ALP’s IR laws

by 15 May 2007

WORKPLACE AGREEMENTS, union involvement and employment relationships should be key areas of concern for HR professionals in Labor’s proposed industrial relations policy, workplace lawyers have warned.

Businesses have raised a number of concerns about Labor’s proposed abolishment of AWAs, the restoration of unfair dismissal laws, new award obligations and collective bargaining with unions. However, uncertainty over the details of the proposals is causing havoc for employers and HR alike.

“There is not too much detail on what the Labor Party is suggesting, causing some concern and destabilisation,” according to Brian Williamson, managing director of Workplace Law.

“This needs to be very carefully managed leading up to the election, as it may have an impact on the economy even before a change of government.”

As a result, he said businesses may opt to either hold back on using AWAs, or rush into them on the premise that it is better to act sooner rather than later. What replaces expired AWAs will be the ultimate question for business, Williamson said.

“It would be fairly difficult to replace an AWA with a common law arrangement if there are underpinning awards or collective agreements that may reactivate,” he said.

While Labor’s IR policy appears to carry forward many aspects of WorkChoices that will simplify an HR professional’s life, it is likely to create more work for those companies which do not have strong relationships with their employees.

“As with all changes to IR legislation, the impact on particular HR professionals and their organisations will depend very much on the relationships that they have with their employees,”said Jamie Robinson, partner at Harmers Workplace Lawyers.

“HR professionals and employers that have built good, trusting relationships with their employees will not need to be too apprehensive about Labor’s position.”

The prospect of more union involvement in the workplace – particularly in the areas of agreement negotiations, industrial action and right of entry –will be another potential issue for HR, Robinson said.

In terms of collective agreements and the role of unions, Williamson said there is a lot of concern from business about the reintroduction of unionism into the workplace.

As union membership in Australiahas fallen gradually over recent years, Williamson questioned the relevance of Labor’s proposed moves to bolster union support, particularly in industries where unionism is not traditionally strong.

“This could do the Labor party a lot of damage, as you now have Mr Rudd coming out with one position and Julia Gillard coming out with other positions,”Williamson said.

“This is leading to the perception that there is a bit of doublespeak going on, which businesses are not comfortable with,” Williamson said.

The ALP has proposed the establishment of “Fair Work Australia”, a single body to replace existing government bodies such as the Australian Fair Pay Commission, the Office of the Employment Advocate and the Australian Building and Construction Commission.

“I think the devil’s going to be in the detail,” said Williamson. “Obviously if you get rid of the AIRC there is going to be a fair slab of redundancy payments, because a lot of people have been there a long time and you’re basically going to remove a whole infrastructure, which I would think would be fairly expensive.”

Both Williamson and Robinson said Fair Work Australia could not be the “one-stop-shop” that Labor proposed. While the main benefit of such a body would be a reduction in duplication of infrastructure for separate organisations, separate agencies dealing with worker’s compensation and discrimination for both state and federal cases will also need further significant change.

Robinson predicted a potential conflict of interest arising within Fair Work Australia, between its information, facilitation and enforcement roles.

However, Robinson said HR professionals should only be alert and not alarmed, as the policy was still undergoing development, aside from any other concessions made to business.

“The best advice to HR professionals remains to continue to develop strong relationships with their employees through good communication,”Robinson said.

HR should not be postponing whatever it is intending to implement on the basis of a possible win by Labor, Williamson added. “If looking to change work practices, negotiate AWAs with employees or even have a collective agreements, HR should endeavour to do that and keep it moving.”

However, Williamson warned unionised industries that the spectre of a Labor Party win at the next election will be taken into account by the union negotiating parties.

“There may be some kickback from unions, because they may want to postpone a negotiation, or alternatively may want to have a negotiation but have a one-year enterprise or collective agreement, rather than a two- or three-year agreement,” he said.


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