The Guardian 1 June, 2005

The Howard-Andrews IR plan:
Bosses’ free-for-all

Anna Pha

The changes announced by the Howard government last week amount to a complete transformation of Australia’s industrial relations system. The protection afforded workers for over 100 years through a centralised award system of legally enforceable minimum wages and working conditions will be replaced by four basic and inadequate legislated conditions and the barest minimum wage.

The government is determined to replace existing state and federal systems by one “simpler” national system. And it will be simpler. No rights for workers, and a free-for-all for their bosses. One-page scanty contracts will replace comprehensive legally binding awards which reflect the many gains workers have made over many years of struggle and sacrifice.

If this legislation is passed, the only thing then standing between workers and the loss of working conditions, massive wage reductions and the destruction of collective bargaining and collective agreements will be the strength of the union in the workplace and the courage and determination of workers. There will be no right of appeal.

The government plans to create a “safety net” of four legislated conditions and to establish the dishonestly named Australian Fair Pay Commission to determine minimum wage rates for adults and non-adults, “rationalised” award classifications and casual loadings.

The minimum wage rates and four legislated conditions are to be known as the Australian Fair Pay and Conditions Standard (AFPCS). These conditions are annual leave, personal/carer’s leave, parental leave (including maternity leave) and maximum ordinary hours of work — what Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews calls a “true safety net”.

They will be the only legal obligation on employers — everything else will be up for grabs and will have to be won and held onto in struggle by workers and their unions.

The Commission will be appointed by the government and will base its decisions, not on workers’ needs or work value, but on economic considerations such as productivity and “jobs growth” — an employer and government euphemism for low wages. The government has promised that the minimum wage will not fall below the 2005 national Living Wage Case decision. If the British experience is anything to go by, then it will be frozen at that for years to come.

Awards will be further gutted to 16 allowable matters. Superannuation, jury service, notice of termination and long service leave will be thrown out. This would not only remove gains over and above legislated minima for these entitlements, but open the way for the government’s “choice” of superannuation fund to apply to many more workers covered by union-initiated industry funds.

Awards will not be abolished says Andrews — a meaningless statement as there will be no requirements for enterprise agreements or individual contracts to contain their provisions. Forget the old no-disadvantage test! It will be legal to reduce wages and conditions below what is in awards and employers who do that have the full backing of the government.

Non-union AWAs and enterprise bargaining agreements (EBA) will go straight to the Office of Employment Advocate (OEA) and become effective immediately without scrutiny. Previously every EBA had to be certified by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) and every single AWA by the OEA.

Any worker unhappy about long hours of unpaid labour, wage rates, working conditions etc, will soon be out the door. The boss will be free to sack without reason anyone they like in workplaces with up to 100 employees, with no compensation — around four million workers will be affected.

The AIRC will lose its powers to determine wages and working conditions. Its main role will be “dispute resolution” — meaning sending workers back to work and enforcing new stringent rules that further restrict the right to strike. It will also take part in the future stripping of awards.

The government is setting up a taskforce to “review and rationalise” existing awards and classification structures. It will finalise its work within 12 months.

The limited, existing protection afforded to workers through centralised awards and union-negotiated enterprise agreements will be wiped if the government gets its way.

Collective bargaining will be replaced by individual contracts, the government’s AWAs, where “agreement” is reached on the basis of “sign it or no job”.

Trade union rights

There will be compulsory secret ballots before strike action can be taken.

The right of trade unions to recruit, make contact with members, negotiate on behalf of their members or take industrial action will be severely curbed. Prime Minister John Howard and his Workplace Relations have a vision of union-free workplaces.

The planned changes do not in any way alter the essence of the relationship between labour and capital — workers and their employers — and the system of exploitation and private profit making. But they aim to seriously weaken the bargaining power of the working class and leave individual workers at the mercy of employers with virtually no protection or redress to gross injustices.

Workplace health and safety will go out the window

Trade unions are mounting campaigns and various actions in opposition to the Howard government’s agenda. As well as informing workers of the nature of the change a great deal of emphasis will be placed on building opposition in the wider community.

It is going to require the full might of a highly organised and united trade union movement, along with support from the broader community and left and progressive organisations, to defeat the employer offensive.

The Australian people have a great track record of standing up to attacks on democratic rights. In previous years, workers have rallied in huge numbers to defend democratic rights and to defeat attacks on them by the conservative forces.

See story on trade union actions and story on overview of the changes.

Back to index page