In the days of union domination of the workplace most awards had redundancy provisions. Failing that there was a fairly standard practice of the Industrial Relations Commission to write them in as needed.
The clauses followed a similar pattern. Companies could cut their workforces when times were tough or when they were closing past of their business, but redundancy had to be offered to everyone on the same terms, usually several weeks pay for each year of service. Otherwise, the rule was last-on, first off.
The law and practice in effect made it impossible for an employer to use redundancy as a means of getting rid of hopeless employees. Employers would have loved to have picked out a few drongos for redundancy while keeping the good staff. But in the union-dominated environment of redundancy-for-all, employers faced the prospect of the good people putting their hands up for redundancy because they could get jobs elsewhere while the otherwise unemployable drongos would hold their ground.
Nor was sacking a possibility because no matter how incompetent a sacked worker, a union workforce would almost automatically strike if anyone were sacked.
This sort of inflexibility stunted productivity and inspired John Howard to embrace the cause for reform from his earliest days in Parliament. Now he has got his way. The regulation of industrial relations in Australia is on par with other industrialised nations.
You would think that Howard would defend the application of his laws. But there he was this week running away from a straightforward application of the laws when the media got hold of a case that tugged at the heart strings.
John Beavan, 61, who is dying of cancer, was a 40-year employee at the rapidly shrinking Tristar Steering and Suspension Australia. The company has lost contracts and its staff has shrunk from 300 to 30 in the past 18 months. On learning he had cancer, Beavan asked for voluntary redundancy, but the company refused saying his position, in accounts, was not redundant.
“Help,” cried the unions last year as the company began to shrink. “Heartless,” they cried at Beavan’s fate.
“No response,” replied the Government last year.
“Heartless,” cried Alan Jones on radio this week.
“Heartless,” parroted Howard this week. (But nothing to do with his new laws, he asserted.)
The new Minister for Industrial Relations, Joe Hockey, was “on his way”.
Earlier, Howard had described Hockey as avuncular. Good old Uncle Joe would take the tough edges off the new laws, or at least those hard cases discovered by Alan Jones and other media outlets.
Howard said, “But we are dealing here, if you look at the strict law of it and I don’t think companies should always look at the strict law, they should look at the human consequences, you are dealing with a situation where the voluntary redundancy provisions of industrial law have operated in this manner for decades.”
How can he say that when his new laws have whittled away minimum conditions and done away with awards that dealt with redundancy and done away with an Industrial Relations Commission that could write in redundancy provisions. These would have precluded shutting out some employees from redundancy while allowing others to have it?
Sure, strictly speaking the new laws are silent on redundancy, but Howard’s new laws created the very situation that the dying Beavan found himself in because they stripped away protections he might otherwise have had.
A principled supporter of industrial relations would have argued the case on its merits. That is a bit hard to do while Alan Jones is around, but Tristar’s position is not all that unreasonable. Why should an employer have to offer redundancy payments to every employee rather than only to the ones who have no work? One has every sympathy for Beavan and his family, but the remedy is not redundancy, it is proper sick leave and death benefits. Moreover, these benefits and super, holidays and long-service leave should be held in trust by corporations, so if they go belly up workers do not miss out.
As it happens, I think the corporations power in the Constitution is a better base for industrial-relations law than the old system, but not the way Howard has done it.
The Constitution prevents the Commonwealth from legislating for all employees. The old system relied on the Commonwealth’s power to legislate for the settlement of industrial disputes that cross state boundaries. It spawned artificial disputes and interstate-based unions. The new system relies on the corporations power and applies to all employees of corporations – almost the whole workforce.
Under the old system, unionists got the benefits ; others missed out. Under the new system it is possible to legislate for decent conditions for nearly everyone. Howard has not done that – to the contrary — but a Rudd Labor Government could.
For too long Australia has had a piecemeal industrial-relations system which relied on union muscle, which could often be misapplied, and lots of workers with little or no protection.
The Beavan case illustrates not that the Howard corporations-based system is incapable for giving workers fair conditions and protections, but that its present minimalist application of it fails to do that and in doing so has generated cowboy attitudes by employers — so much so that it will continue to provide more ammunition for Alan Jones and the rest of the media than even Uncle Joe Hockey is likely to be able to handle.
Expect more hypocritical condemnation by the Government of employers taking unfair advantage of the very legal and institutional environment that the Government has created.
BLOB A huge number of emails on last week’s piece on water were almost universally condemnatory of the present odds and evens system, but one or two correspondents said they had found a fully dated system which could cope. Actew says it is reviewing the system this year. There’s hope yet.