Working hours test case opens way for change
Tuesday, 23 July 2002
The Australian Industrial Relations Commission's decision today on hours of work will be some comfort to the thousands of Australian families affected by long hours of work, according to a University of Adelaide researcher who contributed to the case.
The Commission handed down its decision on the ACTU's 'reasonable working hours' test case this morning. Although the Commission turned down some of the specifics of the ACTU claim, it has given workers the right to refuse overtime if it means working unreasonable hours, risking workplace health and safety or affecting family responsibilities.
Associate Professor Barbara Pocock, Director of the Centre for Labour Research at the University, says today's decision "gives the argument about long hours of work legs - but we have a long way to go to find the solution".
"The case has realised some important gains," Dr Pocock says. "The problem of long hours is on the industrial map, and the Commission has shown itself willing to establish a test case standard in response to it.
"In practical terms, the Commission has given some clarity to the long-established implicit right to work only reasonable amounts of overtime. Most employees will now have the explicit right to refuse paid overtime where it results in them working unreasonable hours."
However, Dr Pocock says this won't stop the growth in hours of work that affect many Australian workers, and the fact that Australia is out of step with many other countries, with average working hours that seem longer than most other OECD countries.
"The decision will not stop many workers working long, or very long unreasonable hours, and it will not contain the many hours of unpaid overtime that Australian employees work," Dr Pocock says.
"The decision, and the evidence before the Commission, contains some hints about the way forward. In the case of extremely long hours of work, the solution may lie in preventing employees from working long hours (ie capping the working week at 48 hours as some European countries do) except where a special case can be made.
"There are many possible solutions. The general case is made. The challenge now is to find the right Australian remedy to a problem that is negatively affecting so many households - and is a core issue in the current work and family debate underway in Australia."
Dr Pocock is a co-author and author of two reports utilised in the case.
Queen Elizabeth II Fellow in Labour Studies
School of Social Sciences
University of Adelaide.
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