The head of the Australian Building and Construction Commission has quit, and the CFMEU has been slapped with $2.4 million in fines. And as wages remain stagnant, speculation increases that Labor will push more deeply into an IR fight.
Australian industrial relations had a turbulent start to the year, and it seems that the tension will continue through to the year’s end. The question now is, what will the situation look like going into 2018 and beyond?
The head of the ABCC quits
Nigel Hadgkiss, chief of the ABCC, has quit after admitting he contravened the Fair Work Act. During his tenure as head of a Fair Work office, he allowed website material to be published that suggested employers could prevent union officials from exercising their right to meet employees in their place of work. And, when staff raised concerns, he failed to correct the material.
As reported by ABC news, Liberal senator and former employment minister Eric Abetz argued the crime was menial, and was now being capitalised on by unions who have committed far worse. “That which Mr Hadgkiss is alleged to have done pales into absolute insignificance, it is literally in the parable, they are pointing out a little speck in Mr Hadgkiss’s eye,” he said.
However sympathetic you might be to that point of view, it’s obvious why Hadgkiss had to quit. This April, after fines were laid against the CFMEU for unlawful industrial action, Hadgkiss said, “The ABCC will continue to work towards ensuring all in the industry, whether workers, unions, or employers, comply with the law. Flagrant disregard for workplace laws cannot be tolerated.”
The ability to deliver such a line with a straight face is absolutely crucial to the role Hadgkiss has stepped down from. The now former-chief has been a consistent lightning rod in the IR sphere and, as any HR manager knows, integrity in a public-facing leadership role matters. When it’s not there, you risk your organisation’s reputation, and encourage finger pointing.
Which is why it’s no surprise that the Labor party is making political hay out of the issue, and saying that Minister for Employment Michaelia Cash – who knew about the breach allegations a year ago – should also be stepping down.
In a blistering decision, Federal Court judge Geoffrey Flick has hit the CFMEU and its officials with record fines totalling $2.4 million. The judgment is about unlawful strikes that took place on July 24-25 2014, where 1000 Barangaroo construction workers walked off the job.
Explaining his decision, Flick mentioned that the CFMEU were repeat offenders and that, “It is difficult, if not impossible, to envisage any worse conduct… the prior imposition of penalties — some nearing the maximum — against the CFMEU has not deterred it from engaging in clearly unlawful industrial action”.
It couldn’t come at a worse time for unions. Trying, as they are, to maintain their relevancy despite declining membership numbers and a struggle to find their place in an economy that is rapidly changing. With the government seeking to pass laws that will stop the merger between the CFMEU and the Maritime Union, this new decision only gives them more political ammunition.
Enterprise bargaining agreements and the continuing IR fight
Low wage growth, and the changing demographics of employee relationships are posed to make sure that Australia’s IR tensions continue for some time.
Also, the number of workers moving from being under enterprise bargaining agreements (EBAs) to being under Award rates is increasing. Just this month the Murdoch University in Western Australia took the ‘nuclear’ option and won the right to terminate its EBA with staff – a highly unusual and contentious decision, especially for a public institution.
Given these underlying problems and the tone and tenor of the political debate, HR professionals should be wary. With the Coalition government focused on what it perceives as overly powerfully and disruptive unions and the ALP’s employment spokesman recently giving a speech wherein he made increasing the bargaining power of workers an election pledge, it seems likely that industrial relations will be unsettled for some time.