The Guardian January 31, 2001


Ripped off! Don't let it happen to you

Firstly, let me introduce myself. I am a skilled tradesman and I worked 
for the same company for about 13 years. I worked on some major 
construction sites so my employer was no small-time operator. The company 
originally employed about 30 fitters and electrical tradesmen with about 12 
office staff  about 40-45 altogether. I served my apprenticeship for four 
years and at that time I enjoyed a lot of the old conditions that had been 
won by the trade unions in previous years.

Because I could still be victimised I have used a false name for this 
article. Just call me Bill!

In 1990-91 the recession hit and old conditions were attacked by the 
employer and many were lost. The trade union leadership did very little 
(actually nothing) in the face of these attacks.

The union job delegates were being sacked on various construction sites and 
not only from my union. The principle of last on first off was given away. 
This opened the way for the boss to sack trade union militants  anyone 
who did not bend the knee to the employer.

I took on the union delegate's job after several years of seeing conditions 
and wages being slashed. I saw what was happening and thought that 
something had to be done.

I talked to my workmates about these matters and they slowly began to 
support me and saw the need for them to be involved if they were to protect 
their own interests.

We had a number of disputes about superannuation and redundancy 
entitlements. The employer was not paying the superannuation entitlements 
that were a legal requirement for all employers.

I always put the question to workers: "Well, what are you going to do about 
it?"

The workplace became organised. I mean by this that we discussed each issue 
and talked about the aims of the employer. We began to dig some trenches 
and had several short industrial actions. What was important was that we 
won each dispute.

The company was about five to six months behind in their super payments to 
the tune of about $34,000 and they were forced to pay up.

The successes gave the workers some confidence that they could achieve 
something and stop the employer from ripping us off.

Safety conditions on the job, occupational and health conditions and 
amenities were virtually non-existent.

It wasn't difficult to persuade workers that they should have clean water 
to drink, be able to make a cup of tea, have decent toilets and site shed 
amenities so that we could wash our hands and have a meal out of the dust 
of a building site.

The boss tried to sack me on many occasions  it was real guerilla 
warfare. But, the men supported me and stopped the boss from giving me the 
axe. Unfortunately, and it is a tragedy, that the trade union officials did 
not give any support. They never visited the job once at that time.

We went for a new Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) and won a 23 per 
cent wage rise of two years with NO trade-offs. It was a big victory.

Things came to a head when the employer attempted to sell the workers 
individual work contracts. There was a real danger that workers would 
accept them because the employer was offering a big increase in the hourly 
rate. Of course, it meant giving away all entitlements  sick leave, 
holiday pay, superannuation, redundancy entitlements, and long service 
leave. We would have also lost overtime rates.

The employer's carrot was a big increase in the hourly rate and the idea 
that each worker would then "become his own boss".

It took a lot of talking  the value to the family of having a paid 
holiday, the need to be covered for sickness, the value of overtime rates.

We just sat down and worked out the arithmetic and when it was all added up 
workers could see that despite a big increase in the hourly rate they would 
actually be worse off.

As far as being their own boss, contracting meant they would still be 
dependent on the big employers who doled out the contractors to sub-
contractors anyway.

I put it to the men: "How would you like your 16-or 18-year son or daughter 
to stand in front of an employer and negotiate a wage increase and other 
conditions?"

We eventually had a meeting and the workers rejected the work contracts 
overwhelmingly  only two voted for them.

The idea of the individual contracts was undoubtedly to destroy the union 
and with it, collective bargaining. It would have become dog-eat-dog, every 
man for himself and every man on his own.

After the individual work contracts were defeated we went for another EBA 
and won a further 20 per cent wage increase up-front with, once again, no 
loss of conditions.

Employers took the union to Court. There was a big roll-up of employer 
representatives because our EBA had become something of a pacesetter. The 
employer organisation were there with their legal eagles. There was even a 
rep. from the Liberal Party!

However, the Court upheld the EBA and that was another big setback for the 
employer.

It was at this time that the employer changed his tack and began to scheme 
behind our backs and manipulate the company structure in preparation to 
sack the entire workforce and rob every worker of his entitlements.

The employer set up a labour-hire company with no assets and all the 
workers were moved into it. The labour-hire company became the employer and 
was not legally bound by the EBA which had been negotiated with the parent 
company.

The company pulled the wool over the eyes of the workers by declaring that 
because they were paying the same agreed wage rate, employees had nothing 
to worry about. When challenged about this, the labour-hire company agreed 
to certify the EBA, but this did not protect the workers' entitlements.

The labour-hire company was then put into receivership by the original 
company which still held all the assets. This was obviously their 
deliberate intention in the first place.

This is exactly what Patrick Stevedores attempted to do with the MUA 
workers when they were locked out in 1998. It was the struggle of the MUA 
supported by other unions that eventually prevented Patrick from getting 
away with it in that case.

But in my industry that did not happen. The workers got nothing when they 
were all sacked. The total amount of entitlements that have been thieved in 
this way probably amounts to about $250,000, maybe more.

The parent company is still operating and the bosses drive around in flash 
cars  using the money that they robbed from the workers.

Only a very small number of the original workers found employment with the 
original employer, having accepted individual contracts. The rest had to 
fend for themselves. Once again the union leadership did next to nothing to 
help the workers find a way to fight for their entitlements.

This story is now being repeated many times as unscrupulous employers 
follow the Patrick example, restructure their companies, put workers into a 
company with no assets and then, whenever they wish, sack them. The parent 
company would have already put the workers' entitlements into their 
pockets.

Workers have already lost millions of dollars in this way and millions more 
will be thieved unless this deliberate and dirty ramp is stopped.

Every worker should find out who is employing them and, if it is a labour-
hire company or a $2 company without assets, it is certain that at some 
time everyone will be sacked with the loss of all entitlements. The boss's 
law allows this to happen.

It is too late to act when the axe has fallen.

Find out now who is really employing you and demand that the employer make 
an agreement guaranteeing payment of entitlements and that your 
entitlements be set aside in secured trust funds available only to workers 
for this purpose.

Parent companies should be made liable for the debts of their group.

Both Federal and State Governments should be called upon to legislate 
immediately to stop this despicable robbery.

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