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May 02, 2019

JACQUIE MACKAY: Good morning Mr O’Connor.
MACKAY: The Fair Work Act was brought in in 2009 under the Rudd Labor Government. What’s gone wrong?
O’CONNOR: The Act certainly was better than what the Liberals introduced, because they introduced WorkChoices, the most radical anti-worker legislation in the history of Australia. But there are deficiencies, and some have arisen because of Federal Court cases interpreting provisions in a way in which I don’t believe the previous government would have intended. For example, the idea that you can unilaterally make applications to terminate enterprise agreements as an employer without having to get consent from your workforce or union representing those workers we think has become a real rort and has been gamed by too many employers.
The example I just listened to there from the delegate from the AMWU talking about what might happen to workers in BHP is another manifestation of gaming where they have been able to, well I think they are looking to find loopholes in the Act and thereby set up, or construct, a legal entity that would ensure that they avoid their obligations on pay and conditions that exist now.
Labor’s response to that is this. Firstly, with respect to just terminating agreements by one party, not both, we say we’ll prohibit that unless it’s consent. And secondly, with that example, we say workers who are under enterprise agreements should be voting for those agreements. What we won’t allow is the imposition of an agreement that’s been voted on by other workers or very few workers rather than the workers that the agreement would be subject to.
MACKAY: Would that be a majority rules kind of agreement?
O’CONNOR: So the worst example I’ve seen was the CUB dispute a couple of years ago in Melbourne where a number of casuals in Perth were asked or told to vote for an agreement then they sought to impose that on tradespeople in a CBD site in Melbourne which amounted to 30 per cent cuts to their wages. No wonder that dispute ensued – it was the longest dispute in Melbourne. To the credit of the new owner of CUB they purchased the company and they re-negotiated an agreement and got rid of that practice.
Well, we don’t want employers racing to the bottom or avoiding obligations. We’ll be attending to any deficiencies in the law if it allows any side of the bargaining table to manipulate things just for their ends only. We want to see genuine bargaining for employers, workers and unions to bargain for mutually good outcomes, but not for one side to be able to game the system.
MACKAY: Couldn’t you argue though that for a big miner like BHP that has mines everywhere throughout the country that for them having to have different agreements for different mines it’s just too complex? Why not bring in one EBA for the entirety?
O’CONNOR: Well, firstly if they want to bargain across their entire company they are legally entitled to do so. Enterprise bargaining means bargaining with an enterprise. You can have multiple enterprise agreements with an enterprise, like with what happens with Qantas and large companies, particularly because you have different work forces. You might have the catering staff bargaining for an agreement, and you have the flight attendants – that can happen. And that’s fine.
There’s no problem with a company bargaining one agreement with all the unions and workers that are represented, provided that is genuine bargaining. What you can’t have is imposing or using the system to impose things on others. And I don’t know the full detail of the matter that was just raised by the worker that you just had on you show but we’ll be looking at that to see whether that fits. It would appear on the face of it to be concerning to Labor that one side of the bargaining table can avoid their obligations by using this method. So we have to examine that closely.
MACKAY: Thank you very much indeed for dropping in this morning to highlight a little bit about the workplace agreements and also that Fair Work Act, Brendan O’Connor.
O’CONNOR: Can I just say it’s Russell Robertson’s birthday today - Robbo it’s his birthday, our candidate here in Capricornia and I wish him a happy birthday.
MACKAY: Great way for him to be spending a birthday.