A New Institute of Employment Rights

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Not since the penal powers dispute of 1969 has industrial relations policy and law been at the centre of the national stage.

At that time even employers became disillusioned with the Coalition’s ideological obsession with trade unions. With the introduction of ‘WorkChoices’ many of the same elements have re-emerged.

The Australian Institute of Employment Rights was launched today in Melbourne by former Prime Minister and ACTU President Bob Hawke together with prominent legal and academic figures. The Institute will convene legal and academic figures on a national basis to sponsor research, debate and policy options relevant to Australia’s workplaces, provide international perspectives and evaluate the effects of the legislation on the rights of employers and employees in the workplace.

In a statement today the Institute said that it is being established at a time when labour law and rights are under unprecedented attack from neo-liberal policies promoted by employers and the Federal Government. The source of neo-liberalism influence has had much to do with well-funded strategic promotion by a number of so-called ‘think-tanks’ such as the Institute of Public Affairs, Centre for Independent Students and the H.R. Nicholls Society to name a few. Research on these centres parallels studies of the same phenomenon in the U.S. where corporations have provided considerable funds to promote neo-liberal policies and views, even founding a university.

‘WorkChoices’ signals a new era of contest over employment rights in Australia. This contest comes as the Coalition sets out to replace the century-long settlement in which the Australian Constitution established a federal system of dispute resolution based on national and state industrial laws.

The 20th century settlement was a trade-off in which organised labour accepted compulsory regulation in return for recognition and rights in the system. Enterprise bargaining was introduced by Labor to complement the system’s conciliation and arbitration functions and most industrial disputes occurred under the industrial laws and the tribunals they established.

‘WorkChoices’ aims to marginalise the tribunals which lie at the heart of the settlement, to weight the balance of rights in favour of employers, to promote individual arrangements in place of collective employment agreements and to limit labour’s capacity to bargain by proscribing aspects of employment and penalising organising rights and industrial action.

In a major constitutional shift, the new laws attempt to replace the dispute prevention and settlement powers with a national system based on the corporation’s power, a shift which has profound implications for the future governance of Australia in many fields.

The debate has already seen the organised labour movement, major religious figures, academic researchers, media commentators, business organisations and political figures engage in passionate public debate. As the new laws are put into effect, this debate can only be expected to grow.

In submissions to the recent Senate Inquiry, 155 industrial relations academics jointly argued that the new laws are likely to disadvantage the most vulnerable members of society in low-paid and precarious employment.

Labour lawyers argued that the laws are contrary to ILO standards, which the previous laws already breached, and that Australia is threatened with expulsion from the ILO. ILO standards are integral to a number of ‘free trade’ agreements previously adopted by the Australian government, many of which the Institute of Employment Rights can be expected to advocate

In the medium term the Institute intends to develop a Charter of Employment Rights which can bring together elements of the debate in a contemporary statement of the rights of the parties to employment arrangements. A similar centre in Britain has formulated a Charter which has played a positive role in providing the Trade Union Congress (the UK equivalent to the ACTU), the Blair Government and employers with a point of reference when making changes to industrial relations laws.

The union movement has dealt itself back into the game in a major way in the furore over ‘WorkChoices’. The ACTU has become the main voice in the community, working with a range of dissenting voices from churches to sporting figures

The Institute will work to inform the debate about the constitutional challenge promised by state governments to the new Act, monitor litigation and disputes which develop in the coming period and provide a context for the policies of political parties to be presented at the next Federal election.

For further information about the constitution and membership of the Institute please contact Australian Institute of Employment Rights, c/o M Bromberg SC, 6th Floor, Joan Rosanove Chambers, 550 Lonsdale St, Melbourne, 3000.

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