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Queensland Economic Advocacy Solutions

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Does Queensland strike more today than in the past?

Does Queensland strike more today than in the past? Regardless of perception the answer is a categorical 'no'.  Latest data from the ABS confirms that the number days lost due to industrial action in Queensland in 2017 was 32,200.  If that number sounds high, keep in mind there are 2.47 million Queenslanders in work.  In addition this total is effectively half of the 25 year average (62,000) and our workforce over that period has grown significantly yet total days lost has declined.

In terms of Queensland’s percentage of total days lost in Australia, there was a concerning trend in both 2015 and 2016 where Queensland was accounting for a disproportionate amount of days lost.  However this trend has now settled, back to approximately 22 per cent, which is close to the State’s percentage of the total Australian workforce.

Industrial action is taken by employees to settle a workplace dispute about working conditions and includes when employees don't come to work; fail or refuse to perform any work at all; delay or put a ban or limit on the work they do; and / or are locked out of a workplace by their employer.

Examples of industrial action in 2017 in Queensland ranged from BCC bus drivers, childcare workers, Centrelink staff through to the prominent Glencore strike action.

At present we have relatively low incidence but high economic cost of industrial action yet change is potentially on its way that could see both escalate substantially. The very prominent ACTU secretary, Sally McManus, believes and has stated publicly that onerous industrial relations laws needed to change because it is too hard to take industrial action.

"If employers don't give pay rises if you ask nicely, the only thing workers have left is to exercise their ability to withdraw their labour.  If you take that away then they don't have bargaining power." Sally McManus ACTU secretary

The area of the Fair Work Act relating to this issue is complex but in short there are a series of actions that must be taken for industrial action to be 'protected' (ie allowed for under the Act).

If the industrial action is unprotected the Fair Work Commission can suspend or end the action on the basis that it can cause significant economic harm to the employers or cause significant damage to the Australian economy or important parts of it.

A key point for the employee is that if the industrial action is ‘protected’ then an employer must not threaten to dismiss or discriminate against the employee taking the action.

For more information on industrial action: https://www.fairwork.gov.au/how-we-will-help/templates-and-guides/fact-sheets/rights-and-obligations/industrial-action

The reality is the level of industrial action in Queensland and Australia has fallen not because it is too difficult to take action but mainly as a result of secret ballots for industrial action being introduced ie individuals can no longer be coerced or feel pressured from ‘mates’ into voting to take strike action.

If anything this issue to my mind is not really about the extent of industrial action but about why it is being taken.  Officially the top five reasons for industrial action in Australia over the past 10 years have been as follows:

  1. Enterprise Bargaining related; Employment conditions
  2. Enterprise Bargaining related; Remuneration
  3. Non-Enterprise Bargaining related; Employment conditions
  4. Non-Enterprise Bargaining related; Health and safety
  5. Non-Enterprise Bargaining related; Union issues

The case for change in this area is very weak by the ACTU and if anything laws could be tightened to take account of ‘industrial bastardry”. 

What do I mean by this, well reasons for industrial action often appear admirable but the reality can be otherwise.  For example action taken on the grounds of ‘health and safety’ are often inappropriately used as leverage to achieve other industrial purposes.  Those purposes often relate to a union enterprise agreement or subcontractor needing a union enterprise agreement that specifies more generous employment conditions and remuneration.

My view is that the area within the Fair Work Act relating to industrial action is actually working reasonably well and should not be tampered with.  The case for tightening the laws is equally as strong as the case for loosening them.

The problem however is that this issue is rapidly becoming one about ‘votes’ and not the relationship between employees and their employer.   The business community should be very wary of politicians seeking to derive political mileage out of workplace relations as recent history holds that businesses come out second best. 

Data sourced from ABS Catalogue: 6321.0.55.001 - Industrial Disputes, Australia, Dec 2017 

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