An unobjectionable-sounding title obscures the real intent of the latest in a series of Bills which the federal Coalition government is attempting to legislate in its ongoing attempts to undermine employee wages and conditions and attack unions.
The government recently introduced the Fair Work Amendment (Respect for Emergency Services Volunteers) Bill into Parliament as a response to a long-running dispute in Victoria involving the Country Fire Authority (CFA), the Victorian government and the United Firefighters Union for a new enterprise agreement. The most controversial aspect of bargaining has centred around clauses that relate to the CFA’s use of volunteers.
In an attempt to capitalise on prominent anti-ALP media coverage in Victoria arising from the dispute, the Turnbull government promised in the lead-up to the July federal election to legislate around the issue. The Bill introduced recently by the re-elected government is the result.
The Bill would make unlawful clauses in an enterprise agreement that relate to volunteers. While the precise wording is more confined than this, the practical effect of the legislation would make it very difficult for a clause that related to volunteers to have any legal effect. The Bill would prevent the Fair Work Commission approving an agreement that contained such clauses, and any existing agreement that contained such a clause would be of no effect. What this means is that even when an employer and its employees and their union have agreed to a clause as part of a package of wages and conditions, such clauses would be of no effect.
An agreed clause that for example provided for employees to be consulted by management before changes to the way volunteers were used in a particular organisation would now be deemed unacceptable, even if those changes might have significant effects on the employees of the organisation (such as the occupational health and safety of employees). While there is no doubt that volunteers play a valuable role in many organisations, it is hard to see the logic why employees in those same organisations should not be able to have a say in matters that might significantly affect their working conditions. And yet the federal government says such terms are ‘objectionable’.
While it is bad enough that the government is legislating because of one particular dispute on what is in any event a state matter, the Bill goes even further by allowing the government to make regulations to intervene in any disputes involving volunteers at ‘emergency management bodies’. This phrase is defined, among other things, as a public organisation which ‘responds to an emergency or natural disasters’.
It is not hard to see how public hospitals or other organisations that employ nurses and midwives could fall within this expression, enabling the federal government to step in to effectively override any clauses that might bear on volunteers that are agreed between employees, their unions including the ANMF, and management of those organisations. The ANMF has recommended in a submission to a Senate Inquiry that the Bill be rejected.
While clauses relating to the use of volunteers are relatively uncommon, the Bill is unfortunately part of a wider trend towards banning other terms in agreements that governments do not agree with. Employer organisations have recently been pressing hard to outlaw terms that relate to contractors, labour hire employees and even casual employees and last year’s Productivity Commission (PC) Inquiry into Australia’s workplace relations framework made the same recommendation. The government has stated that it will seek to implement this recommendation.
Another proposal made by the same PC Inquiry was to introduce a statutory form of individual contract called an “enterprise contract”. The PC proposed that the contract be offered to prospective employees on a take it or leave it basis (ie. sign or no job), and no negotiations over the terms of the contract with new or existing employees (or their union) would be required. The contract would not be required to be approved by the Fair Work Commission.
One might conclude from all this that certain groups and governments are not actually interested in genuinely collective bargaining or are willing to put up with it until it produces outcomes they do not like.
We await with interest the government’s response (if any) to the PC report, which it has not yet officially responded to, despite promising to release its response prior to this year’s federal election. What we can be certain of is a trickle of similar legislation to the Volunteers Bill chipping away at wages and conditions.
Federal Industrial Officer