Exclusive Brethren lose workplace exemption

Canberra, Australia - A special exemption used by the secretive Exclusive Brethren sect to ban unions from their workplaces was struck out of workplace laws before the Senate last night.

The "conscientious objector" clause - beefed up by former prime minister John Howard as a favour to the religious group - was used by more than 30 sect employers over the past decade to claim a legal right to stop unions from even visiting their business, regardless of whether staff wanted representation. The provision had been carried over into Labor's proposed new workplace laws, despite Kevin Rudd, when he was Opposition leader, branding the Exclusive Brethren an "extremist cult" that breaks up families.

But Family First senator Steve Fielding and Independent Nick Xenophon voted with Labor last night to back the Greens' amendment to the Fair Work Bill, which is still stuck in limbo after debate was delayed by the alcopops debate. The battle over the laws is due to resume today, with the Government yesterday warning it may force the Parliament to sit through tonight and into Friday to get the workplace laws passed.

But the central sticking point on unfair dismissal laws for small business remains unresolved.

The two balance-of-power senators - Fielding and Independent Nick Xenophon - are holding firm on their objections to the current definition of a small business, despite Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard vowing repeatedly that she would not shift on the issue.

She insisted Labor's election pledge to give businesses with 15 or fewer staff a 12-month exemption from unfair dismissal appeals - compared with six months for larger businesses - "gets the balance right".

The Coalition wants to lift the threshold to businesses with 25 full-time equivalent staff. Senators Fielding and Xenophon want 20 full-time equivalents.

Labor chose the threshold of 15 staff to align the laws with small business exemptions from redundancy pay.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions has written to Senator Fielding urging him to rethink a full-time equivalency model, arguing that some businesses could have up to 125 part-time staff and still qualify for the exemption.

It argued such a change "would be worse than WorkChoices, leaving some workers with fewer rights".

In an embarrassment for the Coalition, its first draft of the amendment to lift the threshold to 25 workers would also have stripped tens of thousands of small business workers of their current rights to redundancy pay if they are retrenched. It quietly issued a new version at 10pm on Tuesday night restoring redundancy entitlements.

But if their amendment fails, Senator Fielding's draft change for a threshold of 20 workers is also written in such a way to strip countless small business workers of the right to redundancy pay.

Senator Xenophon is opposed to any move to axe the existing rights to redundancy pay.