Business groups irate as industrial disputes surge to highest level in eight years

The business community has called for change after new statistics showed working days lost due to industrial action have risen to an eight-year high under the Fair Work Act.

The statistics show there were 110,000 working days lost due to industrial action in the September quarter, up from 8,300 in the June quarter. The construction sector accounted for a large chunk of that figure at 44,700 days, while 40,400 days were lost in the education, health and social assistance industries.

Several large industrial action disputes, including the Grocon stand-off in Melbourne, have contributed to the stark increase.

And while the Federal Government attempted to pass off the rise in industrial disputes by saying the days lost were still below rates recorded during the Howard era, employers are not impressed.

“These statistics show a concerning rise in the second half of 2012, but they are consistent with a growing trend over the life of the Fair Work Act,” Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Peter Anderson told SmartCompany this morning.

“There are definitely changes needed in approaches from certain union officials. Strikes are not just the product of some poor laws, and poor legal frameworks, but ultimately the product of some decisions made by individual unions or officials to use strikes as a weapon in tough bargaining situations.”

The release of the data comes as another industrial action has begun in Fremantle, with port workers announcing their intention to strike – a move that could possibly affect deliveries of stock before Christmas.

This year has been a significant one for industrial action. Teachers in Victoria, along with construction workers, staff at a Coles warehouse, and power workers at two Hunter Valley Stations are just a few of the groups that have initiated strikes.

Overall, there were 68 disputes in the September quarter, 15 more than the last quarter, although the number of employees involved fell from 70,000 to 55,800.

Workplace relations minister Bill Shorten said the number of working days lost was below that of the Howard government, arguing that “you can’t trust the Liberals with industrial relations”.

But other business groups have weighed in. Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox told The Australian the increase shows the need for the Government to change IR laws, noting that “it is essential that the big issues now be focused upon”.

The comment is a reference to the fact businesses are unhappy with the latest round of amendments to the Fair Work Act.

But Peter Anderson says while the laws do need changed, he argues the onus is on unions to come to the negotiating table.

“The Government has been told that collective bargaining rules need to be changed – told by its own hand-picked inquiry and yet it has refused to put that proposal into the Parliament because the trade union movement opportunistically disagrees with it.”

The ACTU has responded by saying industrial action “is a fact of life”.

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