Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

The Australian Workplace Industrial Relations Survey and the Prospects for Enterprise Bargaining

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

The Australian Workplace Industrial Relations Survey and the Prospects for Enterprise Bargaining

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Workplace industrial relations has in recent years become the focus of

research and policy in Australia. Iri part this reflects a widespread belief that the need for more efficient and productive workplaces is a vital ingredient for Australia's economic recovery. Award restructuring, the gradual move towards an enterprise focus in wage determination and the rationalisation of unions in Australia are some of the industrial relations developments making up the current reform agenda.

To assist policy formulation and inform debate the Federal Government, as part of a microeconomic policy package announced in August 1988, allocated funds for an authoritative and comprehensive national survey of workplace industrial relations. The Australian Workplace Industrial Relations Survey (AWTRS) has been completed and the results published in a book, Industrial Relations at Work (Callus, Morehead, Cully & Buchanan, 1991). The wealth of new data generated from AWIRS will have a number of immediate benefits. First, it allows a more accurate picture of Australian workplace industrial relations to be drawn. In doing so it challenges some of the caricatures that have developed on the basis of more selective and limited evidence. Second, the survey can be used to assess and inform the current policy debates and developments in industrial relations reform. This article applies the research fmdings to an examination of the recent decision by the Industrial Relations Commission to defer further initiatives in enterprise based wages bargaining. The AWTRS data suggests that there may, as the Commission suggested, be problems in moving too quickly towards such a system.

2. The Scope of the Survey

AWIRS was conducted by the Commonwealth Department of Industrial Relations between November 1989 and May 1990, following almost a year of development work and field testing. The sample comprised 2,353 workplaces representing workplaces with five employees or more, in all industries except Agriculture and Defence at both metropolitan and non metropolitan locations in all States and Territories in Australia. This sample represents some 122,000 workplaces employing about two-thirds of Australian wage and salary earners. The sample was stratified to allow comparisons to be made on the basis of industry, employment size or State. The survey attracted widespread support from major employer organisations and the industrial relations community, which is reflected in the particularly high response rate of 87%.

AWIRS collected detailed information on such things as management and union structures at the workplace, industrial relations indicators, em ployment practices, organisational characteristics, structures and methods of employee--management interaction, the extent of change affecting workplaces and the pattern of diversity in industrial relations at Australian workplaces. At 349 workplaces with between five and nineteen employees a questionnaire was administered by phone to the senior workplace manager, while at 2004 workplaces up to four face to face interviews were conducted with managers and, where present, union delegates.

3. Reassessing the Popular View

Many of the survey findings challenge long standing myths about Australian industrial relations. The popular view of the Australian workplace is really based on a model of a large manufacturing workplace. Such workplaces are characterised as undergoing Utile change, having multiple unions, an outdated award structure and relatively high levels of industrial action. It is assumed that institutional arrangements restrict flexibility. This model has become the basis around which much of the reform debate has revolved in recent years.

One advantage of large scale surveys, such as AWTRS, is that generalisations can be made on the basis of more authoritative and representative information. In addition, a comprehensive survey allows the diversities and complexities to be charted more accurately and for generalisations to be qualified to reflect differences between sectors, industries and other characteristics of workplaces. …

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