Federal Workplace Relations minister Bill Shorten says critics who blame the Fair Work Act and industrial relations for the nation’s productivity woes are looking for solutions in the wrong place. In a deceptively simple speech packed with big ideas at the Sydney Institute on 4 April 2012, Shorten outlined his take on why productivity has lagged in the last decade. He said it was time to look at the issue with “clear open eyes” and not as a “conflict model” of “us versus them”. “What is certainly clear is that it is highly doubtful the two-year-old Fair Work Act can carry the blame for our woeful productivity performance over the past decade,” he said. “Workforces of the future should not outsource all things and all matters of productivity to workplace regulation alone.” He said while workplace laws impacted on businesses’ ability to grow, regulation “on its own is not going to take the enterprise or organisation too far”. He said the keys to unlocking productivity gains were within businesses themselves. “The creation of productive capacity at enterprises includes much that is not traditionally perceived as the preserve of industrial relations,” he said. He proposed: improving efficiency and waste; ongoing workplace learning and training; setting up systematic innovation; devolving decision-making; and unleashing ‘discretionary effort’ by making sure workers were ‘happy’ because they felt valued. “Excessive waste, high turnover, poor OH&S – this is never or rarely measured. But it always hits the bottom line,” Shorten said. He said innovation was crucial and is “not always all about boffins and computer modelling and technical prowess”. “It’s about smart workplaces, engaged in what they do and figuring out with creativity and teamwork how to be better.”
Future without IR quackery
Concluding his speech, Shorten envisaged a change to the current trend of EA “being merely transactional – dealing principally with wages but not enough with other content”. For businesses to attract workers, he said EAs of the future had to be more than just a “simple wages schedule”. “Unions and employer associations will flourish as they align with a focus on productivity, skills and providing workplace empowerment for employees and employers,” he said.
Important productivity advocacy role for FWA
Shorten said Fair Work Australia has a crucial role “rolling up its sleeves to help actively conciliate between the occasions conflict does occur rather than wait too long”. “In future Parliaments workplace relations will be much more concentrated on freeing the productivity potential of collaborative workplaces than a sterile debate about the evil of unionism or the benefits of statutory individual contracts,” he said. “We cannot always externalise workforce issues — i.e. if we just kill off trade unions then everything would be better — i.e. if we just changed legislation everything would be better. Simple cures for complex problems amount to industrial relations ‘quackery’. Not all problems either could or should be solved by government.” Shorten said the challenge for business was to “knuckle down” to the “hard grind” of making their workplaces more efficient, and engaging their workforce to unleash its discretionary efforts – i.e that portion of a worker’s effort voluntarily provided above and beyond a mere job and duties description.
Source: Thomson Reuters Workforce news, 5 April 2012.
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