Employment Relations in Australia Within the Past Two Decades
Within the past two decades, many countries have undergone a transformation since they have shifted from traditional industrial relations system to the contemporary employment relations one. In light of the mentioned above fact, the current paper examines the change within Australia stating that it has resulted in the transition of authority from unionists to employers. Hence, the latter have become more powerful in employment relations. The reference theoretical framework to assess radicalism leads to the observation that relations between unions and governments have taken radical turns in some instances. It also emerges that in Australia, employment relations have been characterised by a high level of institutionalisation.
Change is inevitable in all spheres of people’s activity. Within the last two decades, employment relations have become one of the fields that have encountered significant transformations. In particular, traditional industrial relations have been replaced with the contemporary employment ones all around the globe (Singh & Kumar). Australia has also faced such alterations given the reformation process that has largely been influenced by economic and political developments in the country. For instance, at the close of the 1980s, the Hawke Government alongside the union movement began the enterprise bargaining process in a bid to decentralise the labour relations system (Ashurst). That was only the beginning since from the midst of the 1990s, the Howard Government came up with more radical measures that were geared towards individualising employment relations and reducing union participation (Ashurst). Overall, the given paper argues that employment relations have witnessed a process change leading to the loss of power by the Union Movement to employers.
The Shift from Industrial Relations to Employment Relations
The employment scene is dynamic and owing to the ramifications of the various transformations, it has been constantly changing. With regard to the mentioned fact, it should be noted that the responses of employers differ. For instance, some have attempted to introduce non-union pacts that have encountered strong opposition from the workers (for example, those working in the mining and waterfront industries) (Ashurst). In other cases, the executives have adopted cooperative initiatives in response to the alterations.
Due to the innovative changes, new terms such as “high performance”, “high involvement” and “high commitment” have gained dominance in the current Australian labour discourse (Ashurst). Such words emphasise the significance of teamwork, multitasking and employee participation in an effort to increase productivity. Unfortunately, despite such developments, feelings and perceptions of inadequate consultation on the part of employers persist (Karvelas).
The mentioned earlier change is clearly visible if one considers the industrial relations and their shift to the employment ones. The notion “industrial relations” refers to the interactions between management (representing employers) and unions (representing the workforce) (Gennard & Judge). Their essence lies in the process of collective bargaining both at the industry and organisation levels. Bălăneasa seems to agree with the stated idea having observed that industrial relations were linked to specific concerns that became the objects of the collective bargaining at the instigation of unions. As a result, one could observe the presence of many conflicts. In the past, transport, mining and heavy industry sectors were the ones mainly affected by clashes (Ashurst). What is more, the misunderstandings often led to strikes and unrest that were also main features of industrial relations.
According to Bălăneasa, in the present times, changes have transformed the workplace environment leading to many unprecedented developments. Due to the fact that they are completely novel, ambiguity and uncertainty characterise the sphere. Unlike in the past, governments now encourage privatisation, international competition, free trade, and workforce migration (Bălăneasa). As a result, there is fierce competition that has paved the way for the operation of information production modes instead of the industrial ones, an aspect that has necessitated a new approach which had reduced the role of unions in workplace management.
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Furthermore, the transformations are forcing organisations to restructure, reduce in size, operate smaller budgets and outsource a number of functions. In addition, companies are becoming more flexible, adaptable, and they are encouraging short-term contracting rather than permanent employment (Mahapatro). Similarly, part-time employment is gaining prevalence. Emphasis has also shifted to those workers who are willing and capable to learn continuously (Loudon, McPhail, & Wilkinson). The need for such flexibility is to ensure that they can fit into any emerging roles within businesses. It should be also noted that workplaces have become flatter (Bălăneasa). In other words, old industrial schemes are no longer tenable within the organisational environment which means that companies are forced to adopt the alterations.
At present the notion “employment relations” has replaced the term “industrial relations”. From the 1980s, the relevance of the latter concept has been declining owing to the organisational environmental changes (Lasbury). The emergence of employment relations coincided with advancement in human resource management as well as the downfall in the industrial ones. During this period, collective bargaining and unionism lost their power (Lasbury). One of the contributing factors to such a state of affairs is the technological growth and other developments that led to the restructuring of organisations and the enactment of restrictive legislation (Lasbury). As a result, union membership fell significantly that signalled the loss of power on the side of labour unions (employees).
However, the perspective that workers do not any authority anymore is not conclusive given that the development of human resource management (HRM) is viewed as a mitigating component in addressing the employee rights. Under HRM principles, workers are seen as important resources worthy an investment. Unlike unionisation which was collective, HRM is individualised as it focuses on a person’s performance (Bălăneasa). In this regard, it is argued that the individual has received some power. Nevertheless, it is known that collectivism is more influential than individualism. Hence, it is held that the employer has gained an advantage over the employee as well as over the union.
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As it has already been stated, innovations play a major role towards change. Such dynamics influences workplace activities like collaboration, management and unionisation. In Australia, unions, executives and crises have greatly affected the process of fostering collaborative workplace advancement (Barry & Wilkinson). Moreover, although transformation emanates from a number of sources, governments play a crucial part as illustrated by the case of Australia. For example, the policies of the authorities have influenced the dialogue between unions and employers leading to the formation of a social partnership between the players.
Speaking about theoretical framework, one can say that radicalism is rather applicable to the Australian scenario since the perspectives fall into extremes rather than being continuum (Hlousek & Lubomir). The Australian case indicates that the position occupied by labour unions has varied from time to time. During the leadership of the Labour Party, radicalism was shunned since the stakeholders collaborated (Lasbury). The party enjoyed power from 1983 to 1996 (Lasbury). During its tenure, it endeavoured to alter work relations by entering a pact with the Union Movement. Under the agreement, the government would work alongside the unions to moderate wage demands with the objective of lowering the rates of inflation (Lasbury). As a promise, the government undertook to reform the social and economic spheres of life (Lasbury). The collaboration also resulted in the process of reforming the labour market leading to the decentralisation of the system of employment relations in Australia (Lasbury). As a result of the working partnership, during the 1990s, more flexibility was present in the labour market. In particular, non-union agreements became permissible in the workplace (Lasbury).
However, the coming in of the Liberal-National Party coincided with radicalism and different positions concerning labour relations by the government and unions (Lasbury).
As a result, some radical developments have taken place. Among the most influential ones was the exclusion of unions by Patrick Stevedores, a key player in the waterfront industry (Lasbury). The company alleged that dockworkers were overpaid and, consequently, the Maritime Union of Australia enjoyed monopolistic power that contributed to the fostering of restrictive practices (Lasbury). Following many disputes, Patrick appointed an administrator before withdrawing support to subsidiary labour companies. Later, he proceeded to lay off many employees (1400) paving the way to hire non-unionised workers (Lasbury). When the case went to the industrial relations court, Patrick was found in breach of the law and was ordered to rehire the fired people (Lasbury). However, the Maritime Union agreed to adopt changes to work practices with the intention of improving productivity, an aspect that signalled change in the working relations.
Unlike the Labour Party, the Liberal-National Party took a hard-line stance on labour market reforms (Lasbury). Hence, its relationship with the union movement became uneasy. Thus, under the coalition government, work relations were largely driven based on unilateral arrangements of employers as opposed to collaborating with labour unions. It has been discerned that the government participated in undermining collective bargaining in favour of individual pacts.
The activities of the political authorities of the day led to the direct fragmentation of the labour movement and its decline in power. Such a development, in a way, contributed to employers usurping power compared to unions and workers. In summary, the introduction of laws supported by the government proved the role authorities played in changing employment relations. In particular, the enactment of the Workplace Relations Act of 1996 gave way for the decentralisation of working relations and gave room for non-union pacts thus diminishing the power of the labour movement (Lasbury).
To conclude, in light of the realisation that short-term employment arrangements are being preferred, it can be inferred that the employee is losing ground or power to the employer. Working as a temporary worker does not allow an individual similar benefits to those enjoyed by full time/permanent workers. The paper has also established that unions have lost power since the development of HRM has marked a state where employers engage workers individually rather than collectively. In addition, it is evident that employers have gained advantage since approaching an individual is easier than facing a group. Change of government has also contributed to the decline in collective bargaining in favour of individualised agreements at the work place. Many researchers such as Lasbury and Bălăneasa agree that industrial relations have been replaced with employment relations in a process that has witnessed the decline of the Union Movement and the concurrent rise of the employer.