SYDNEY — FOR more than a decade, Australia has been trying to shed its image as a strike-ridden, union-dominated country, its work force peopled by employees who take ``sickies'' (unjustified sick leave) when the surf is up.
A new Industrial Relations Reform Act, which took effect yesterday is being described by Minister for Industrial Relations Laurie Brereton as a historic leap forward for more flexible, workplace-based wage deals.
Business leaders, however, call the new act a ``missed opportunity for real reform.''
The act is a step forward in what has been a long reform process. The Australian workplace has been controlled by a 90-year-old centralized tribunal, the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC). In conjuction with unions, it established ``award'' packages of minimum wages and conditions for each industry sector. It also dealt with grievances and issued sanctions against employers.
Under the reform act, employers are given slightly more flexibility in working out agreements with employees over wages, shifts, and benefits without union veto, while maintaining the basic award structure. For the first time, nonunion workers are given the same rights as union workers have to negotiate workplace contracts.
Employers can lock workers out. Workers are given a limited right to strike. Women are to receive equal pay for equal work.
Industry leaders say the bill raises new problems, however. It limits the measures employers can take against striking workers, such as firing them. Employers have to work harder to justify dismissals. ``The government claims it makes accessible enterprise bargaining to employers and employees in nonunion workplaces,'' says Vernon Winley, assistant director for the Business Council of Australia in Melbourne. ``It does that nominally, but with so many restrictions ... most employers are not going to want to use it.''
``The specific provision that relates to unfair dismissals and to the use of strikes and secondary boycotts in labor disputes will be of particular concern,'' adds Ian Spicer, chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Melbourne.
The federal government has not gone as far as it could with deregulation, Mr. Spicer says. ``The Prime Minister in April 1993 outlined a course of action much more extensive than that contained in this act,'' he says. ``Clearly, the government feels itself constrained by trade union attitudes.''
The IRC was designed to protect workers against exploitation, provide a decent wage, and offer a safety net. Work conditions for Australians are typical of most industrial nations, though generous by American standards. Workers receive a minimum of four weeks annual leave; 12 months unpaid maternity leave, parental leave, and bereavement leave; and a three-month-long service leave after 15 years. What is more, employees get a 17.5 percent ``holiday leave-loading'' bonus on their salaries to make up for lost overtime when they take vacations.
Meanwhile, small Asian-Pacific countries were running economic circles around Australia. The Australian Labour government recognized that big changes in productivity and efficiency were needed to keep up. In the 1980s, the government floated the dollar, deregulated financial markets, and reduced tariffs.
Labor-market reform was next. The sluggish, swollen wharf industry was transformed. The number of workers dropped from 20,000 to 6,000; turnaround time for ships improved by 40 percent.
Other industries also took big hits: The metalworking industry lost 20,000 jobs. After a bitter strike, 1,400 airline pilots remained jobless.
``The reform process has meant enormous shake-up for industries and enterprises,'' says Ed Davis, professor of management at Macquarie University in Sydney. ``It's hard to think of any major enterprise that hasn't undergone startling change.''
Those changes, exacerbated by two recessions, have brought a price. Bob Gregory, head of the division of economics and politics at Australian National University, conducted a survey that found that one in four male jobs has disappeared over the last 20 years (after taking into account population growth), about twice the shrinkage that occurred during the Great Depression. (Want ads can specify gender.)
Men over 45 have been hardest hit: Thirty percent of middle-earning male jobs disappeared between 1976 and 1990, Dr. Gregory says. Young people are having a tough time finding work as well.
The unions themselves have changed. Until 1983, relations between the government and unions were tense and industrial actions common. That year, Prime Minister Bob Hawke, ``the Great Conciliator,'' sat down with Australian Council of Trade Union (ACTU) leader Bill Kelty to work out an agreement, called the Accord, that keeps wages, prices, and inflation from spiraling. The annually renewed Accord provides job security and growth for workers, and workplace stability for employers. Kelty, for his part, streamlined the number of unions from 350 to 20.
Today, except for a recent bitter strike in the wharf industry, industrial disputes are at a 50-year low. But union membership has shrunk from 51 percent of the labor force in 1976 to 39 percent today, largely because of the loss of manufacturing jobs and the rise in both the nonunionized service sector and in part-time employment
Seeing the writing on the wall, union leadership has adapted to the move toward enterprise bargaining, while still holding on to as much power as it can. ``We support the legislation because the government was willing to consult with us about it,'' says ACTU spokesman Greg Friedwald. ``We're not worried about losing power. There are enough safeguards.''
The ACTU threatened to pull the plug last year on the Accord over certain provisions in the legislation. Both sides gave ground, but in the end Kelty said the ACTU would continue to support the agreement.
Politically, the climate was not right for big change this time. Prime Minister Paul Keating was returned to power a year ago by a mere 1,500 votes - largely supplied with union help.