There have been more industrial disputes and working days lost to strike this year than in the last eight years, according to statistics released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics yesterday.
The ABS figures show the number of working days lost to industrial disputes is up from 159,800 last year to 293,100 this year.
However, experts say long-term trends show the level of working days lost has fallen significantly over the past 20 years.
Andrew Stewart, labour law specialist at the University of Adelaide, told SmartCompany while the statistics show a higher rate of industrial action in the last quarter than any quarter since 2004, industrial action is at a low historically.
“It only takes a couple of big disputes to create a dramatic spike in the figures,” says Stewart.
“With figures so low historically it does not take much to create one big quarter, if we saw several quarters in a row we would be able to see, yes, there is a trend here.”
Stewart says the rise in disputes can be mainly attributed to industrial action by public servants, as many agreements are coming up for renewal, which means industrial action can be taken lawfully.
“It’s pretty obvious in the statistics themselves the big sectors where the disputes occurred were in health and education and most of these disputes are not in the private sector,” says Stewart.
Disputes in health and education involve state and territory teachers, and nurses and doctors, which are the responsibility of state and territory governments with the exception of Victoria.
“The Australian Industry Group and the Opposition are saying the Federal Government has a problem with Fair Work legislation, apart from the fact the problem is being blown out of proportion, the primary action is by public servants who are outside the Fair Work Act,” says Stewart.
Stewart says if the system is measured by the number of disputes occurring then the Fair Work legislation is working “about as well” as John Howard’s Work Place Relations Act.
“Industrial action doesn’t happen very often and so when it does we notice it because it is so unusual and so newsworthy,” he says.
Charles Power, partner at law firm Holding Redlich, told SmartCompany he also attributes the spike in strike days to public sector action.
“I don’t think you can draw from it that things are getting out of control in the broader manufacturing sector, if you look at the strike rate for strikes in that sector it is considerably less than it was 20 years ago,” says Power.
While the dispute between the Construction, Foresty, Mining and Engineering Union and Grocon came to an end today, Power says the dispute has little application in a broader industrial relations context.
“That dispute was really over a very innocuous issue and was more about the relationship between [Grocon chief executive] Daniel Grollo and the incoming secretary of the CFMEU John Setka,” says Power.
“The issues underlying that dispute were less about substance and more about ego and political posturing.”