Labor to widen the workplace relations divide

The Australian, April 21, 2018

Federal Labor has committed to reinstating the powers of the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal and to the likely abolition of the government’s union regulator, the Registered Organisations Commission, widening the policy divide between the ALP and the Coalition on workplace relations.

Opposition workplace relations spokesman Brendan O’Connor told The Weekend Australian the Coalition’s scrapping of the tribunal, which sets pay and conditions for truck drivers, was an “outrageous over-reaction” and there was evidence its abolition had led to more road deaths.

The ALP will hold further talks with the Transport Workers Union and employers about whether the tribunal returns as a stand-alone body or as a division in the Fair Work Commission.

“We are going to look at what we need to do to return to a regulation that takes into account the correlation between wages, conditions and safety, not just workers’ safety but public safety, given it’s public roads,’’ he said. “I’m open to options available but there is a significant support from employers and by the unions to reassert the principles of the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal to reduce fatalities of truck drivers and the general driving public because of fatigue, because of an oppressive environment in which people are desperate to make ends meet, and often that leads them to endangering themselves and others.”

The Senate voted to scrap the tribunal in 2016 after the government won the backing of key crossbenchers to kill it off.

Mr O’Connor also flagged that a Shorten government would move to scrap the Registered Organisations Commission, which oversees governance of unions and some employer bodies.

He said the commission was a discredited agency given its handling of its investigation into the Australian Workers Union. The powers are likely to be split between the Fair Work Commission and the Australian Securities & Investments Commission.

“We are examining what we do, but I just want to make clear that was our alternative view at the time and that’s probably what we’ll be looking to do,’’ he said.

Mr O’Connor confirmed Labor would increase the penalties for deliberate underpayment of wages by employers. He said the maximum financial penalties would be three times the amount underpaid by an employer.

He reaffirmed that Labor would scrap the Australian Building and Construction Commission and, unlike the Gillard government, not replace it with an agency with weaker powers.

He said Labor wanted the ABCC abolished because the ALP believed in “one set of laws for workers in the country”.

He said the ABCC was a political agency, as exemplified by its former law-breaking director Nigel Hadgkiss, and did the bidding of conservative governments to attack unions.

“It breaches fundamental civil rights, it’s in breach of International Labour Organisation conventions, it breaches international law. It is a dishonourable agency. It has been led by a dishonourable man and it’s been oversighted by a dishonourable government.’’

The ABCC has brought substantial numbers of legal actions against the construction union, resulting in significant financial penalties being imposed by the courts.

Mr O’Connor said that under Labor, work practices in construction would be overseen by the Fair Work Commission and employers could pursue any alleged right-of-entry breaches through the tribunal and the courts.

Workplace Minister Craig Laundy accused Labor of moving to “slavishly adopt the ACTU’s destructive policies”.

Mr O’Connor said Labor was reviewing the definition of casual work. Unions are pushing for two changes to the Fair Work Act: a “proper” definition of casual work, and the option for casual workers to convert to permanent positions after six months of regular work with one employer.