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Published 05 February 2013 00:05, Updated 06 February 2013 07:23
ResMed chairman and chief executive Peter Farrell says the company’s staff don’t need union intervention. Photo: Tanya Lake
One of Australia’s leading technology manufacturers, ResMed, is warning a bid to re-unionise its workforce facilitated by Labor’s Fair Work Act could lead it to shift operations overseas.
The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union has asked the Fair Work Commission to recognise that a majority of the company’s 400 manufacturing staff want the union to be their bargaining representative.
ResMed’s chairman and chief executive, Peter Farrell, said he believed the claim was false and adverse action by the union would make the company more likely to move all its manufacturing overseas.
“The AMWU have an unsuccessful history of trying to unionise ResMed and they seem to be using the pro-union/anti-business aspects of the Fair Work Act to try again to gain a toehold within ResMed,” he said.
The campaign against ResMed, which makes sleep apnoea devices, and another medical manufacturer, Cochlear, are part of what some experts see as a dangerous strategy to use union-friendly provisions of the act to unionise the few manufacturing areas which are growing.
The union’s NSW state secretary, Tim Ayres, said a majority of ResMed employees had expressed a desire for the union to negotiate a workplace wages agreement for them. The next step is for a “determination on majority support”, by the Fair Work Commission, he said.
“The AMWU trusts ResMed will accept the desire of its workforce for collective representation and bargain in good faith with its employees.”
A hearing is scheduled before commissioner Helen Cargill on February 18.
While many sections of manufacturing are shrinking, health-care employment is growing. ResMed’s production rose from $425 million in 2005 to $1.3 billion today.
Macquarie University management professor Paul Gollan said ResMed and Cochlear were corporate leaders because they were agile organisations that could manufacture competitively from Australia.
“I am very concerned that agility be maintained,” he said. “The danger is unless there is a proposition put forward by the unions as to how they can add value to ResMed, they will frighten other manufacturers who are looking at staying in Australia.”
A ResMed spokesman claimed staff were paid 20 per cent above award rates and the company benefited from the agile nature of its operations because it could adjust production levels and model mix depending on customer orders.
Dr Farrell is indicating the company will join Cochlear in vigorously resisting union intervention in its business.
In what has become a test case of the operation of the act, Cochlear has been required to enter good-faith bargaining with the AMWU. Negotiations have been going on for three years with no outcome.
Dr Farrell said the AMWU had been “stirring the pot” for some months and had claimed ResMed was moving manufacturing to plants in Singapore and Malaysia.
“We have no intention of stopping manufacturing in Sydney as our most advanced manufacturing plant is located here,” he said.
“However, one could argue that any degree of negative union activity would make the movement of all our manufacturing offshore a much more likely possibility.”
Dr Farrell said the company had always been happy for the union to talk with staff.
“However, we have also been consistent in telling employees that we don’t believe a union would add any value whatsoever for them as we have excellent working conditions coupled with excellent pay scales,” he said.
“Employees are welcome to join a union but what they need to understand is that it will be one size fits all and we would then only need to deal with one entity and our open-door policy would be at risk.”
Earlier yesterday the company’s senior local executive played down the possibility of a Cochlear-style dispute. “We are pretty keen we don’t have that angst at ResMed,” the company’s senior vice-president for global supply chain operations, Anthony Claridge, said. “We don’t have any desire to put down the union or fight the union.”
Mr Claridge said the company was so far unaware of the details of the AMWU’s claim, and the union itself would not provide a copy of its application to the commission.
Professor Gollan said that while unions tended to view “flexibility” as meaning cuts to staff, “agility” covered functional flexibility, multi-skilling and team-based work structures.
“I haven’t heard a lot from the trade union movement as to how they are going to add to that agility,” he said.
He said the union had confronted Cochlear and forced it into direct union-to-company negotiations.
Asked if ResMed had a philosophical objection to union involvement, Mr Claridge said: “The situation so far is we have worked really well directly with the staff.
“I would love it to stay that way and I haven’t seen a reason why that would have to change.”
This story first appeared on The Australian Financial Review.