First published by the Australian Financial Review on 11 February 2016. 

Opinion piece by AMMA chief executive Steve Knott

BHP Billiton has understandably gone on the offensive after the Fair Work Commission granted Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union officials access to 2500-tonne excavator machinery, known as draglines, at its Queensland coal operations.

The appeal ruling overturned an earlier decision in BHP’s favour. This leaves the employer with the prospect of having to transport union officials to the draglines, shut down production-critical equipment, and allow the officials to approach employees in a confined private space – with or without the employees’ request or consent.

By finding that any place where employees take their lunch should be considered appropriate for union access, this ruling has taken the controversial “lunchroom meeting” provisions introduced by Bill Shorten as Workplace Relations Minister in 2013 to a new level.

The interpretation is akin to allowing unions access to aeroplane cockpits because the pilots occasionally eat a sandwich there.

This case is a strong example of why the business community has consistently opposed automatic or presumed access for union officials to employee lunchrooms, let alone to small pseudo-meal areas inside heavy production machinery.

The underlying problem stems from the previous government’s decision to extend unnecessarily union powers when entering workplaces, ignoring safety and operational practicalities of managing site entry, and overturning longstanding and widely accepted entry rules.

MUST BE ADDRESSED

This is an area of our employment laws that must be addressed urgently.

Disputes on where unions should meet employees were rare before the Fair Work Act because union “right of entry” laws were consistent, well understood and respected by all parties. They did not attempt to force union access into employee lunchrooms or to impose an impractical approach to the location of workplace discussions.

We need to return to this sensible and balanced approach to how unions enter Australian workplaces and their rights and responsibilities when on site.

The Fair Work Amendment (Remaining Measures 2014) Bill 2015 is before Parliament and would restore union site entry rules to the former, longstanding status quo, which includes sensible measures for where and when union discussions can be held.

Last week the Senate committee investigating the bill recommended it be passed, noting that the rules in place since 2009 had led to increased visitation, disruption and demarcation disputes between unions.

Labor’s dissenting senators unsurprisingly defended their party’s legislation and the interests of their union backers, saying the changes would affect the ability of union officials to meet safely with prospective members, particularly “vulnerable” employees.

NOT ‘VULNERABLE EMPLOYEES’

Most familiar with the industry would counter that a giant shovel moving 500 tonnes of coal every hour in a production-intensive environment is not the safest place for those union discussions. Further, dragline operators are highly skilled, highly valued and well remunerated. They are hardly “vulnerable employees” and can make their own decisions about whether to meet unions in a more appropriate setting.

In coming weeks the Australian Mines and Metals Association will be seeking the support of the Senate crossbench for the amendment bill.

AMMA will also be representing resource employers in roundtable discussions with the government, other employer representatives and unions on the Productivity Commission’s recommendations to improve Australia’s workplace relations system. We will use this opportunity to support the passage of genuine and useful reforms, including ensuring safe, fair and workable union site access rules.

Fixing the right-of-entry provisions, as the bill before our national Parliament would do, would immediately reduce administrative and compliance costs, reduce lost time and productivity impacts and ensure union officials visiting workplaces did so in an appropriate location that wouldn’t disrupt work or create serious operational and safety issues.

Employers and union officials will know again where they stand. Importantly, employees who choose not to engage with trade unions will again be able to eat their lunches free from union sales and marketing campaigns should they choose to do so.