Monday, August 27, 2012

A simple sleight of hand - The morphing of Fair Work to WorkChoices

The spectre of WorkChoices was back from the dead today as the Liberal Party's  own Lazarus, John Howard, urged the party to resurrect the dead, buried and cremated policy. The current leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott, was quick to shut down any discussion (lest it lead to an actual policy position that may enable voters to see any Liberal policy longer than three word slogans). However, in his rush to shut down the discussion, he inadvertently gave a glimpse of the mechanism by which he intends to introduce a more radical workplace policy.
Abbot stated that:
"The Labor Government under the Fair Work Act has put in place individual flexibility agreements. I think these agreements need to be made more workable, but there's no going back to the past. We want the Fair Work Act to work better."
Individual flexibility arrangements (IFAs) are arrangements that can vary an employee's conditions under enterprise agreements (EAs)- s202 of the Fair Work Act 2009 -  or modern awards - s144(1). They are designed to allow employees to vary their workplace conditions to suit their circumstances (such as working hours) or for employers to offer a set of conditions to an employee to alter their working conditions to better match business requirements. However, unlike the old WorkChoices Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs ), IFAs are limited to a specific set of workplace conditons, cannot be made a condition of employment and must leave an employee "better off overall". 

  IFAs vs AWAs
Subject MatterLimitedUnlimited (within a basic safety net)
Can be offered as a condition of employmentNoYes
Can be offered en masseNo (that's what EAs are for)Yes
TerminationUnilateralBy agreement
TestBetter off overallNo Disadvantage (initially no test)

As can be seen from the table there are only a few differences between IFAs and AWAs - most notably the subject matter and whether they can be offered as a condition of employment. The removal of these two conditions on IFAs would effectively re-introduce AWAs. A removal or erosion of the test for the agreements would effectively bring back the worst elements of the supposedly dead policy.

Abbott's admission that IFAs are the mechanism by which a future Liberal government would re-introduce "flexibility" should give us pause for thought. The re-introduction of AWAs would not require substantial changes to the Act and so when Abbott states that all changes will be within the Fair Work framework it is cold comfort that the Liberals' pet policy, WorkChoices, isn't ripe for resurrection.

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