More small business workers should be covered by unions: ACTU boss

Union leader Sharan Burrow has called for changes to planned federal industrial relations laws that would help unions increase their presence in small business workforces.

Union leader Sharan Burrow has called for changes to planned federal industrial relations laws that would help unions increase their presence in small business workforces.

In a speech to a Sydney workplace relations conference yesterday, the Australian Council of Trade Unions president foreshadowed a scenario in which multi-employer bargaining rights proposed by the Federal Government could be used by unions to enable them to act for employees across several small businesses in a sector or region.

Burrows used the hypothetical example of Stella, a young, low paid shop assistant employed by Elizabeth, the owner of a small pharmacy in a country town.

As a single small business with one permanent worker, a collective agreement would be impractical from the point of view of both employer and employee, Burrows argues.

But mutli-employer bargaining rights could see the employees of several small businesses, represented by a union, negotiate a collective agreement with their employers.

“A local industry association could represent employers like Elizabeth and a union could then effectively represent workers such as Stella, isolated in similar enterprises. On behalf of both groups, they could negotiate a good faith, collective bargaining agreement,” Burrows says.

Under the scenario, time-poor small business owners could effectively outsource negotiations on pay and conditions to an employer group with the more appropriate skills and resources, while employees would enjoy greater bargaining power.

“A multi-employer bargaining system would benefit everyone in this situation,” Burrows says.

Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard has said Labor will introduce laws to allow low-paid workers to engage in multi-employer bargaining, but little detail has been provided on just how far such rights would extent.

Burrows called on the Federal Government to introduce a strong version of multi-employer bargaining that would require businesses, employees and unions engaged in collective bargaining to bargain in good faith.

“This includes the ability to seek enforceable orders to bargain in good faith and the capacity to take protected industrial action,” Burrows says.

 

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