Workplace Relations Act 1996 – a summary of the main changes

prepared by B. Chaustowski

     The new framework supports a more direct relationship between employers and employees with a
     much reduced role for third party intervention and greater labour market flexibility. The role of the
     award system is focused on providing a safety net of fair and enforceable minimum conditions. There
     is more emphasis on agreements rather than awards.
     Legislation Guideline

       This altered the role of awards in Australian industrial relations.
       Awards simplified to 20 allowable matters so that employees and employers are forced to engage in
        enterprise bargaining to cover issues outside of the 20 allowable matters. Awards set minimum rates and
        act as a safety net (in Dec 1997 there were 3209 awards and it is expected that there will be 1200 by the
        end of 2000).
       The AIRC’s arbitration role has been reduced to 20 allowable matters.
       Union involvement in certified agreements is not mandatory (unlike previous legislation). Unless the
        union is on site or an employee directly asks for union involvement the union does not need to be
       The AIRC approves Certified Agreements applying a “no advantage” test.
       Australian Workplace Agreements (AWA’s) were introduced. These are written agreements between
        the employer and employee which deal with any matters relating to the enterprise. Both parties are free
        to appoint a bargaining agent. The Employment Advocate is responsible for approval of AWA’s (as at
        March 1999 50455 AWA’s were approved).
       Penal provisions of the Trade Practices Act for union involvement in unlawful industrial disputes were
       Disamalgamation of unions is encouraged.
       Rights of entry for union officials to workplaces was restricted.

    Many disputes are now finding their way into the civil courts (eg the waterfront dispute of 1998). This a
    negative effect of the Workplace Relations Act C/Wth 1996

EcoTeacher - Journal of the Economics Teachers Society of South Australia Inc. 2000 Edition                     41

    TRADE UNIONS            Negotiating new enterprise agreements on behalf of members
    (reduced role in        Acting as bargaining agents for individuals in AWA’s (if asked)
    recent years)           Industrial campaigns to assist members but reduced right to strike
                            Representing workers in “safety net” cases before the AIRC
                            Lobbying governments in regard to existing and proposed legislation
                            Reduced ability to take strike action has reduced industrial strength of unions
                            Reduced role in certified agreements and AWA’s
                            Freedom of association and removal of preference for union members has reduced
                             role in negotiation

    EMPLOYER                Providing legal and statutory information to members
    ASSOCIATIONS            Assisting employers in negotiations
                            Lobbying governments in regard to existing and proposed legislation

    AIRC                    Helps prevent and settle disputes (conciliation and mediation) but its role in dispute
                             settlement has been reduced
                            More of a supervisory role currently – less scope to arbitrate (national importance)
                            Interpreting and administering legislation such as the Workplace Relations Act
                            Unfair dismissal
                            Award simplification. Awards can only contain provisions dealing with allowable
                             matters. The Commission must review awards to ensure that they do not contain
                             details better dealt with by agreement
                            Wages and basic 20 allowable matters in awards are supervised (no disadvantage
                            Little influence over work practices and working conditions
                            Safety net cases heard and decided taking into account the needs of the low paid
                            Managing inter union disputes where this harms business
                            Some power to deal with unlawful industrial action

    OFFICE OF               Administers AWA’s (can refer these to AIRC in special cases)
    EMPLOYMENT              Provides advice to employees and employers
    ADVOCATE                Investigates breaches of AWA’s

    GOVERNMENT              Legislative role
                            Submissions to safety net cases
                            Labour market policies
                            Overall economic management


EcoTeacher - Journal of the Economics Teachers Society of South Australia Inc. 2000 Edition                       42

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