Prime Minister Julia Gillard's plans to protect penalty rates and tighten up the temporary visa scheme for skilled workers were hugely significant, South Coast Labour Council secretary Arthur Rorris said yesterday.
During an Australian Council of Trade Unions summit in Canberra on Thursday, Ms Gillard vowed to enshrine penalty rates in the Fair Work Act.
She also outlined plans to tighten the 457 skilled migrant visa program, which allows employers to hire people with very specific skills from overseas if no one locally had those skills. Ms Gillard claimed Australian businesses had been rorting that system.
Mr Rorris, who was at the ACTU summit, said Ms Gillard's speech was a watershed moment in worker rights.
"The two together, coupled in her speech, represent the most significant strengthening of employment law in this country since the abolition of WorkChoices after the election of the government in 2007," Mr Rorris said. "We think it's that important, that they've moved on both fronts."
Mr Rorris said the move to enshrine penalty rates for weekend and shift work would have special significance for workers in the Illawarra.
"If you think about it, how may people work shift work in our region," Mr Rorris asked. "I think we're probably over-represented there. The union movement fought long and hard all those years ago for the eight-hour day, so that workers would be able to enjoy some of their leisure time. What has happened since then is work has crept into that leisure time.
"What this is saying is that there are some jobs where [the hours worked] creep into that leisure and family time.
"But, if you're going to do that, then it's only fair and just that those families are duly compensated."
Mr Rorris also said the move came at a good time as businesses were moving to try to scrap penalty rates.
The focus on the 457 temporary work visas would also benefit the region, Mr Rorris said.
"For our region, we're at the pointy end of the circumventing of local labour by some businesses," Mr Rorris said.
"It had become too easy for some to leapfrog local labour and to go overseas for all sorts of work that wasn't specialised type of skills and that we have in this country.
"So that tightening is very important in terms of protection for Australian workers."