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Talking Employment Relations with Professor Russell Lansbury AM

18 Mar 2010

Professor Russell Lansbury is an Emeritus Professor at the Faculty of Economics and Business at the University of Sydney. He was a Foundation Director of the Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Training and a joint editor of the Journal of Industrial Relations from 1999 to 2009. From 2006 until 2009 he filled the position of President of the International Industrial Relations Association (IIRA) which is based at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Geneva. Last year he was named as a General Member of the Order of Australia (AM). He shares his views on employment relations with Cara Spence.

Q1:  What did you enjoy most about your role as President of the International Industrial Relations Association?

Undoubtedly the most enjoyable event during my three years as President was hosting the 15th world congress of the IIRA in Australia in 2009. This was only the second time that the IRSA has hosted the congress - the last time being in 1992. It was a great thrill to have almost 1,000 participants from around 50 countries in attendance.  Approximately half of the participants were from Australia, most of whom were members of the various state Industrial Relations Societies ? which demonstrated the high level of interest among our members.   The congress was also very strongly supported by federal and state governments, employers and unions who provided sponsorship and spoke in various sessions.

Another exciting aspect my role as President was participating in various regional congresses of the IIRA - in Asia, Europe, the Americas and Africa.  During the past three years there have been significant industrial relations reforms and a growth of interest in our field in a various parts of the world, including Asia and South America. This has been reflected in the large attendances and interesting discussions at recent regional congresses of the IIRA in India, South Africa and Argentina.

Later this year, Indonesia will host the Asian regional congress for the first time. It will be held in Bali from 20-23 September and should attract a great deal of interest from Asia and Australia. Details are on the IIRA website: www.ilo.org/iira

Q2:  What do you consider to be the greatest challenge facing employment relations in Australia?

The main challenge is one which has always been central to the field of industrial relations in Australia and other liberal democratic societies, namely: to achieve economic efficiency while ensuring fairness in the distribution of wealth. In Australia, successive governments since federation sought to achieve this through the encouragement of collective bargaining between unions and employers and independent industrial tribunals to oversee this process. In recent years, this system has undergone various reforms - the latest being the establishment of Fair Work Australia and renewed support for the principle of collective bargaining. However, with the decline of unionisation, the challenge will be to provide a 'voice' which adequately expresses the collective views of the workforce, while also allowing for the expression of individual rights at work.  There will continue to be differences between employers and employees (and their unions) over how wages and conditions are determined in a fair and equitable manner- and the role of an independent tribunal will remain important.

Q3: What can Australia learn from other countries to improve our employment relations system?

Broadly speaking, systems of employment relations in liberal democracies tend to be arrayed on a spectrum, from the more adversarial approach of the United States, which emphasizes the rights of management (eg. 'employment at will'), to the more corporatist systems of Europe, which emphasize the importance of consultation and cooperation between employers, unions and government. The Nordic and German systems are the most significant examples of this approach and they have influenced the European Union to foster institutions such as the European Works Councils.

I believe that Australia can learn from the European example of involving employees more actively in decision making in order to create more efficient organisations as well as building more cooperative and harmonious relationships between employers and employees in the workplace

Q4:  What is the meaning and significance of the term 'job flexicurity'?

The concept of 'flexicurity' has become popular in European discussions of industrial relations reform in recent years. It arose initially in Denmark where the employers and unions negotiated agreements which provided employers with greater labour market flexibility while ensuring that employees, who lost their jobs, would be re-educated and have their skills upgraded so that they could re-enter the labour market quickly and successfully. This is an example of positive coordination between employers, unions and government to foster a more dynamic economy and ensuring that workers are not disadvantaged by structural changes which require them to retrain for other areas of employment.  The European Union is encouraging other countries to adopt similar policies and practices.

It should be emphasized that the Danish initiative arose as a result of problems with long term unemployment and was accompanied by more innovative and outward looking economic policies.  Key elements in the Danish approach are government policies which provide generous income support, life long learning and labour market regulations which foster flexibility while providing long term employment security for workers.

For a more detailed discussion of flexicurity, see a discussion on the ABC Drum Unleashed website, 24 August 2009 by 'Peter Auer and Russell Lansbury Job Flexicurity' at http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/stories/s2664110.htm.