Union set to step up industrial action over flexibility clauses

The Victorian manufacturing sector looms as a flashpoint in the latest battles between employers and workers under the Rudd Government’s new Fair Work industrial relations regime.

According to a report in today’s Australian Financial Review, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union has applied to Fair Work Australia to hold 43 secret ballots at Victorian workplaces, seeking to take legally-protected industrial action as a wave of workplace agreements come up for negotiation.

Food companies – including divisions of Nestlé, Coca-Cola Amatil and Heinz – are particularly affected.

Last week, a dispute at a regional factory of Campbell’s Soups resulted in the company locking out its workers for more than two days.

At the heart of that dispute was the use of flexibility agreements under the new Fair Work laws.

A flexibility clause must be part of every enterprise agreement. The clauses are designed to allow employers and employees to reach individual agreements about flexible work arrangements, such as varied working hours, penalty rates and overtime.

While the Fair Work laws state that an employee cannot be “worse off” under an individual agreement, the unions are not happy with the agreements, claiming they represent a throwback to individual bargaining.

“We don’t want a clause that allows the employer to put pressure on a worker to accept individual arrangements that undermine the conditions that have been collectively bargained for and agreed,” AMWU Victorian Secretary Steve Dargavel said last week at the height of the Campbell’s dispute.

AWMU national secretary Dave Oliver told the AFR that the union will continue to block the use of flexibility agreements.

“We reject the notion that employers can seek an agreement with an individual which will undermine the collective agreement and also disadvantage individual workers.”

Employer groups are not impressed with the AMWU’s stance.

The chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, Heather Ridout, argues that the AMWU’s position on flexibility clauses prevent individuals who have legitimate reasons for seeking to vary the working arrangements, such as a need to pick up or drop of children at school or care. She says woman may be particularly affected by limits on flexibility arrangements.

The Government says the flexibility clauses are effective. It has released analysts of the first 81 enterprise agreements lodged show under the Fair Work Act, and found that 75% use the default clause contained in the Fair Work Act.

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