Within eight days of each other Bill Shorten and ACTU head, Sally McManus, have called for changes to the enterprise bargaining regime which is a central feature of Labor’s own Fair Work Act. Whilst we will no doubt hear more on this these statements would be chilling to many an employer who regards the current

According to the Shadow Minister for Workplace Relations, Brendan O’Connor, (collective) bargaining power has tilted too much in favour of employers. This would rankle many an employer who, amongst other things, would feel the intense irony of Labor asserting that its workplace law, The Fair Work Act (The Act) carries employer bias.

A key tenet

On Wednesday 18 October, the Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations Brendan O’Connor foreshadowed amending the bargaining regime in the Fair Work Act to outlaw so-called “sham agreements”.

The target of the changes seems to be enterprise agreements that are voted on by one group of employees, but have the potential also to cover a much broader group, or to cover a similar group who will be employed in a different geographic location. The Shadow Minister referred to these situations as employers “gaming the system”. 

However,  we note that the Fair Work Act already contains a number of safeguards to prevent “gaming the system”, including that agreements are genuinely made, that employees who vote to make the agreement are “fairly chosen”, and employees are not coerced to vote or not vote for an agreement.

While we do not have the benefit of any detail (such as a draft Bill) – there are some things to be said about the potential effects of the foreshadowed changes.

The concept put forward by Shadow Minister O’Connor in his speech would allow an agreement that has been made, to be challenged and potentially reversed on the basis that the employees who made the agreement are not “representative” of those who will be covered by it.

This raises a number of important questions including:

  • What factors are to be taken into account in determining representativeness?
  • Which characteristics of the employment will be given priority over others in determining representativeness?
  • Who could challenge an agreement that has been made? For example:
    • Could a competitor union to that which represents the employees use the provisions to unwind an agreement that has been made?
    • Could another company challenge the approval, with the goal of ensuring the employer is hindered in achieving competitive terms and conditions for its business?

These questions may not be answered unless and until the provisions are enacted and tested by the many varied situations real life throws up.

Our initial impression is that any amendments that allow agreements that have been made to be effectively “undone” could cause enormous problems that go well beyond the immediate issue being addressed. This exemplifies the danger of focussing on first order consequences, at the expense of equally (sometimes more) important second and third order consequences.  By trying to plug a perceived gap in the legislation, these amendments have the potential to open up a new form of “litigation sport” – where agreements that have been made are subject to lengthy legal challenges and then undone much later down the track. There are many industrial reasons – which have nothing to do with the supposed problem being addressed – which might provide motivation for such challenges.
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