Challenges and opportunities in new IR laws

New IR laws pose both opportunities and challenges for business owners come July 1, experts say

By Jayne Munday

Changes to the Fair Work Bill 2009 were the topic of discussion at yesterday’s breakfast briefing at the Brisbane Treasury Casino Hotel.

The ‘Forward with Fairness’ seminar provided business owners with understanding of new enterprise bargaining, unfair dismissal, flexibility and union entry laws.

Keynote speakers included Skilled Group General Manager Paul Duckett and Group Manager Renato Marasco.

The new legislation will pose both opportunities and challenges for business owners come July 1, they say.

The briefing was designed to arm business owners with viable tactics to take advantage of the impending changes.

A positive for employers is that the Fair Work Bill retains key aspects of WorkChoices.

However, the pendulum has swung in favour of unions, and the new system may reduce flexibility and increase costs.

The Fair Work Act consists of a three-stage implementation.

Come March 31, the no-disadvantage test for agreements will be re-introduced.

On July 1, union right of entry, unfair dismissals and enterprise bargaining changes will be implemented.

Finally, on January 1, national employment standards and modern awards will be adjusted in compliance with the new Act.

The 10 national employment standards encompassing five new regulations are as follows:

  1. Maximum weekly hours of work
  2. Parental leave
  3. Annual leave
  4. Personal/carers leave and compassionate leave
  5. Fair work information statement
  6. Flexible work requests
  7. Community services leave
  8. Long service leave
  9. Public holidays
  10. Notice of termination and redundancy pay.

A flexibility term in a modern award must:

  • Identify the terms which are being varied
  • Require genuine agreement
  • Apply the ‘better off overall test’ (BOOT)
  • Set out termination provisions
  • Be in writing and signed by employee and employer
  • Copy must be given to employee.

Award terms which may be varied in a flexibility cause include:

  • Arrangements for when work is performed
  • Overtime rates
  • Penalty rates
  • Allowances
  • Leave loading.

Marasco says there was previously too much duplication within the awards, and rationalisation was needed.

The Australian Industrial Relations Commission has commenced building a new system with approximately 4,000 federal and state awards.

Duckett says collective agreements are the area which will affect business owners the most.

"The key is retaining good people and skills," he says.

"When the good times come around, you will be in a strategic position to take advantage of them."

Under the new Forward with Fairness system, the collective workplace agreements available will be:

  • Single-enterprise agreements
  • Multi-enterprise agreements
  • Green-fields agreements.

Unions are continuing to procrastinate and stall in wait of July 1, according to Duckett.

"You can break the cycle by communicating to your people," he says.

"Frontline supervisors will be what makes or breaks a business."

When it comes to unions increased right of entry, Marasco says employers must manage and supervise visits efficiently.

"It is important to have them in a meeting room instead of the lunch area," he says.

Likely union claims will focus on reduced working hours, increased super contributions, paid maternity leave, climate change commitments and protection of employee entitlements.

It will be hard to retain collective non-union agreements, because unions can represent one or two people, which gives them the right to sit at the table, they say.

When it comes to unfair dismissal, it is advised that employers review contract policies and procedures.

As a closing note, Duckett says organisation of a company’s contingent labour force is crucial to survival.

Instead of hiring permanent staff, he advises employers to assess the experience and skills of contingent workers.

Skilled is a national workforce services company with offices across Australia and New Zealand.

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