The Guardian 20 July, 2005

Government Industrial Relations ads:
a tale of two classes

Anna Pha

The media blitz continues with full page ads in daily newspapers promoting and defending the Howard government's planned offensive against workers and trade unions. New ads on the radio reinforce the dishonest message carried in the newspapers. The lies and deception begin in the headlines of these ads: "More Jobs Better Wages A Stronger Economy". They continue to the bottom of the page where readers are invited to seek more information by visiting the government's website.

On offer are three versions of "The Howard Government's Plan" one written specifically for Employers, one for Small Business and the third for Employees. The front covers carry the same graphics and slogans and the pages that follow have similar structures and headlines. There are, however, some important differences in the detail. It is these differences which further expose the devious, dishonest methods and intentions of the government as it pursues its pro-business agenda. All three documents repeat many of the lies and deceptions found in the ads. A few examples claiming that the new laws will:

"NOT cut award wages" meaning: force workers onto individual contracts (AWAs) leaving the employer free to cut wages to any level.

"NOT outlaw union agreements" meaning: make it virtually impossible for unions to negotiate agreements.

"NOT remove the right to join a union" meaning: allow employers to sack workers who join a union.

And so the list continues, deception after deception, lie after lie. (See Guardian 13-7-05 for details).

Employers but not employees are told: "the new workplace relations system will be simpler, easier to understand and less costly which will enable small businesses to innovate and grow free from the bureaucratic restrictions and red tape in the 'old' system."

Out with the "old"

The "old system" refers to such requirements as the certification of an agreement by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC); meeting minimum award provisions; passing a "no disadvantage test"; negotiating with unions; and other important employer obligations won by trade unions in awards and enterprise bargaining agreements (EBAs).

And of course, the term "free" refers to freedom for employers.

Workers in their information sheet are promised that the Australian Fair Pay Commission (AFPC) "will periodically adjust the minimum and award classification wages to provide reasonable and sustainable increases to meet changes in the cost of living".

"Award wages will not be frozen and will not go backwards", workers are told, and the statement is underlined for emphasis.

Small businesses are not informed of these guarantees, instead they are told: "Minimum and award classification wages will operate as a genuine safety net for agreement making." There is no mention of any link with "changes in the cost of living", only a reference to a safety net. Nor is there a guarantee that wages will not be frozen or cut.

Small business is also told: "It will make it easier to create more jobs." This is code for lower wages. It is based on the government's argument that the lower wages are, the more workers businesses will employ. And if wages are low enough then businesses might not move offshore to countries such as India and the Philippines where wages are a fraction of the rate in Australia.

"the Standard"

This is not the only discrepancy between information given to workers and their bosses.

Workers are promised protection in the form of the so-called "Australian Fair Pay and Conditions Standard" (the Standard): the four minimum legislated conditions (annual leave, personal/carers' leave, parental leave and maximum ordinary hours of work) and minimum wage and classifications set by the AFPC.

They are told there will be a "single point of reference for agreement making. Employers and employees will only need to compare their agreement to the Standard to ensure it complies." The term "agreement" refers to both collective enterprise agreements and individual contracts.

Their bosses are offered a "simple and single point of reference to replace the old 'no disadvantage test'. Employers will only need to check their agreement against the Standard to ensure it complies."

Employers are not told that employees will also need to check their agreement against the Standard. In practice workers confronted with a "sign it or no job" individual contract would not be in a position to be checking anything against "the Standard". It is nonsense.

Workers are not told that the "no disadvantage test" is being abolished. This test was to ensure that workers under an AWA or collective agreement were no worse off than under the relevant award. It means that agreements and AWAs completely override awards. Awards become irrelevant to workers on AWAs or EBAs. This is not spelt out to workers in their information sheet.

Workers are promised "Increased flexibility in agreement making options. Simplifying the current confusing and complex test for agreement making will give employees and employers more choice and flexibility about what type of arrangements they want in their agreements."

Compare this with what the employers are offered: "All agreements, collective and individual, will be lodged with OEA, overcoming the current complex and adversarial agreement certification or approval processes." Workers are not told that there will not be any external scrutiny whatsoever of the contents of their AWAs or collective agreements the document will simply be lodged and put into a filing system in some form or other. It is the employer who writes the AWA and then "checks" that the AWA complies with "the Standard"!

Award simplification

The removal of superannuation, jury service, notice of termination and long service leave provisions from awards is defended on the basis that they are already covered by legislation. Workers are told "removing them will reduce duplication and make awards simpler and easier to understand so that employees will be able to clearly determine their terms and conditions of employment".

The reference to "duplication" is misleading to say the least. The provisions covering these entitlements in awards and EBAs far outweigh the minima set in legislation. They reflect the gains over and above the legislation that unions have won for workers over years of struggle. Employer obligations to meet these, such as superannuation contributions above the legislated nine percent, will no longer be legally enforceable.

"Simplification" is code for "removing" or "gutting" workers' rights and entitlements.

No mention is made to employers that their "employees will be able to clearly determine their terms and conditions of employment". And of course the government has no such intention that workers can do anything of the sort.

Instead employers are told that removing those leave and superannuation provisions "will make awards easier for employers and employees to understand and ensure they perform the role as a true safety net."

Resolving disputes

The employers' section on resolving disputes says: "Employers will continue to have access to the AIRC [Australian Industrial Relations Commission] to assist in resolving disputes with employees".

And employees? There is not a single mention in their document, no suggestion that the AIRC will assist them in a dispute with their boss. The AIRC's loss of powers in the area of agreement and award making is not directly mentioned. The AIRC will be there to enforce the many measures that outlaw industrial action and to prevent and put out any industrial action by workers.

Unfair dismissal

"The Government will legislate to exempt businesses from unfair dismissal laws where they have up to 100 employees", workers and employers are told.

Workers are then reassured: "Protections from unlawful termination will still apply. All employees will still be covered by the unlawful termination provisions of the Workplace Relations Act. It will continue to be unlawful for any business in Australia, regardless of size to dismiss any employee for a prohibited reason, for example, because of their age, gender or religion."

The government uses two terms "unlawful termination" and "unfair dismissal" which sound similar. But there is an important distinction. "Unlawful termination" refers to a sacking which breaches the law. "Unfair dismissal" is presently unlawful (under the unfair dismissal laws) but the government is going to make "unfair dismissal" lawful for workplaces with up to 100 employees.

Again, the reassurances are deliberately misleading and that is only in regard to the law, not to the unrestrained and unpoliced employer practices that could follow.

The information for employers is not misleading. No mention is made of any such thing as "unlawful dismissals". Instead, the government promotes the gains for businesses exempted from the unfair dismissal laws.

"Changing the unfair dismissal laws will free small and medium businesses from the burden that unfair dismissal claims can place on their businesses, and will encourage jobs growth."

Larger businesses will also benefit from an extension of the length of employment from three months until six months before the unfair dismissal laws apply. This, the government says, "allows business to focus on retaining the best employees for the job and provide greater certainty for employers and employees."

Apart from the sick joke about giving workers "greater certainty", (and who will decide and on what basis who is the 'best employee'?), this is an admission that it is all about giving employers the freedom to sack workers who join a union, who know their rights, or are non-compliant. Not surprisingly the workers' information sheet makes no mention of being able "to focus on retaining the best employees".

The huge government campaign is a litany of lies, half-truths and deception and a criminal waste of taxpayers' money.

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