THE DECISION by deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop to resist the Labor Government’s plans to abolish Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) has been described by ACTU president Sharan Burrow as an insult to the Australian people who voted overwhelmingly to reject WorkChoices at last year’s election.
Australian workers are being hurt by AWAs, according to Burrow, which she says are lowering wages and conditions and reducing workers’ rights.
“This decision shows that the Liberals plan to keep WorkChoices alive, despite the Australian people voting to kill off the policy at the last election,”she said.
However, Bishop was insistent there was no choice but to fight the Labor Government’s plans to abolish AWAs.
“I could lie down and let Labor pass whatever it likes, and let it roll back industrial relations reform,” the Liberal deputy leader said.
“But I couldn’t in all conscience not put up a fight, when I have been informed by labor market analysts and economists that this presents grave risks, particularly to the mining industry.”
Bishop, the Liberal industrial relations spokeswoman, said it would risk the return of an era where Australia was regarded as an unreliable supplier of resources due to constant union industrial action and strikes.
She said it was necessary for the Coalition to “expose the lie” that AWAs were introduced by WorkChoices, and if she was to accept Labor’s position, she would be “complicit in a downturn in the economy”.
“I won’t do it,” she said. “The challenge is to get people to understand that what Labor is doing is not about repealing WorkChoices at all. They are trying to do the unions’ bidding to get unions into every agreement, every negotiation and every workplace.”
However, the ACTU said the Liberal Party’s stance could result in businesses continuing to push workers onto lower paid AWAs until late 2008. According to recent government figures around 1000 workers every day sign AWAs.
“Ms Bishop is wrong to argue that WorkChoices and AWAs are separate things. AWAs were the centerpiece and cruel heart of the Howard Government’s unfair WorkChoices laws,” said Burrow.
The mining industry was more amicable about the Labor Government’s proposed changes. Steve Knott, chief executive of Australian Mines and Metals Association (AMMA), said the Government’s Transition Bill, which was recently introduced to Federal Parliament, contained no surprises.
“Despite abolishing new AWAs, the resources sector is pleased that the Government has not succumbed to the demands of some unions to make more radical changes,” he said.
The Bill caters for new individual statutory agreements called Individual Transitional Employment Arrangements (ITEAs) until December 2009.
Given the wages paid in the resources sector, Knott said this presents no short-term difficulty for employers who have individual statutory agreements with their entire workforce.
‘Employers in the resources sector will, and in some cases have already, developed strategies to deal with the loss of AWAs. The use of other legislative mechanisms to facilitate direct employment, increased employee engagement and increased organisational effectiveness will be actively pursued.”