Life after AWAs

WHAT should companies be doing now that Australian Workplace Agreements have been abolished?
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Labor's Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008 was passed by the lower house of Federal Parliament today.

The bill sets up the transitional arrangements for the full Forward with Fairness industrial relations legislation, which is expected to be released in July and in operation by 2010.

Industrial law experts recommend companies take stock of their industrial relations systems and work out the best way forward under the new system.

One of the key transitional changes is the removal of AWAs.

Given the high turnover in the resources sector, what happens with new employees? They will not be able to go onto AWAs, but existing employees' AWAs will continue to run until their expiration date.

A company could find it has employees on different IR arrangements.

It will also be the first time companies in Western Australia will be without some form of legislatively-backed individual contract regime for 15 years.

So what are the options?

Labor will replace AWA's with Individual Transitional Employment Agreements.

These ITEAs - some have branded them AWA-lite - will run until December 31, 2009 so employers may want a longer-term solution.

Another suggestion is to take the terms of an AWA and put it into a common law contract. Providing it meets the fairness test, it is believed it should be allowed.

Employers can also opt to find a relevant award or they can set up a collective agreement with their employees.

However, this could bring unions into the negotiation. If just one employee - providing they are eligible to be a union member - wants the union involved then the employer has to negotiate in "good faith" with that union.

Clayton Utz workplace relations partner Glen Bartlett said it would be interesting to see the Government's detail on good faith bargaining.

He wonders what will happen if the negotiations fail or if one party fails to bargain in good faith.

"Whether the parties will be forced to go to arbitration if there is a failure to reach agreement through bargaining I don't know - it will be interesting to see the detail of the new good faith bargaining laws and what is required to satisfy the obligation and what the consequences will be of failing to bargain in good faith," Bartlett said.

Deacons workplace relations partner Maria Saraceni said it was a good time for companies to audit their IR arrangements and look for the best options.

"It's a good time to take stock," she said. "Look at your employment arrangements. Do they satisfy the new law's requirements? What are your business plans? How can these new laws help you help with that?

"You need to get advice. In a tight labour market you need whatever advantages you can get to be an employer of choice."

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