After months of secrecy and speculation, the Australian Government recently introduced into Parliament the new Fair Work Bill 2008, which, if passed by the Senate, will repeal several controversial aspects of the Coalition’s Work Choices legislation. While retaining several key elements of the Work Choices legislation, such as a unified federal system of employment regulation, the Bill represents a significant departure from the existing approach.

There are elements of the Bill bound to raise the ire of both trade unions and employer groups. While the Bill has come under criticism from some quarters, for the most part there seems to be wide consensus that it represents a fair balance between the needs of business and workers.

It is difficult to canvass the breadth of this Bill in a 400 word column, however, three key aspects are worth noting.

Firstly, the Bill gives effect to the Labor party’s stated objectives prior to the elections last year to do away with individual agreements. Instead, the Bill privileges collective agreements. However, unions will have a much more significant role in collective agreement-making than had previously been the case. The Bill has also introduced long-overdue protections for low-paid employees, such as cleaners.

Secondly, the Bill has increased the so-called safety net for employees. All employees, irrespective of remuneration or seniority, will be entitled to 10 basic conditions, which now include the right to request flexible work practices and severance pay if an employee’s position is made redundant.

Finally, the Bill restores access to the unfair dismissal regime for the majority of employees. Under Work Choices, employees who worked for an employer with fewer than 100 employees were prevented from bringing a claim. The Bill has done away with this exemption.

However, employees who have been employed for less than six months, or 12 months if the employee works in a small business (defined as a business that employs fewer than 15 employees), will not be able to bring an unfair dismissal claim.

The Bill is yet to pass the Senate, where the Labor Party must rely upon the support of Coalition senators, or alternatively, require the support of the Greens and an independent senator. Senate negotiations are likely to be interesting with the Coalition stating its intention to block certain aspects of the Bill and the Greens labelling the Bill Work Choices Lite.

Stay tuned for updates from the playground that is Parliament.

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