The Guardian 18 May, 2005

Picket attacked by bikies

Striking workers at the Kemalex plastics factory in Dandenong (Victoria) were shocked when an 18-strong bikie gang stormed through the picket line.

The strikers, mostly women, insist they were abused by the bikies — most of whom wore bandanas covering their faces — and had posters ripped from their hands. The bikies were “escorting” a delivery into the factory.

The workers have maintained the picket since April 27.

The atmosphere at a community picket set up at Kemalex’s Adelaide factory in support of the Victorian workers has also frequently been tense.

Last Thursday, members of company management including the operations manager spent the day in a tent erected just inside the factory gates. They had cameras and the workers entering the site were clearly intimidated.

One worker had stopped to talk to picketers about the issues but reversed her car away quickly when she saw the bosses’ deputation. She returned later in a different coloured car and drove through the picket.

Part of the Victorian workers’ protected industrial action is to defend their already pitiable pay and conditions from further erosion.

For starters, Kemalex has offered a 12 per cent increase over three years to the workers’ miserly $12.62 hourly pay rate, but in return is demanding the 15-minute paid morning tea break be stricken from the EBA.

However, the bigger issue at stake is the determination of business owner and managing director Richard Colebatch to replace the workers at the Dandenong plant with “independent contractors”.

The move would oblige the workforce — made up mostly of migrants with limited ability in English — to apply for an ABN, arrange their own insurances and be responsible for GST reporting.

On a flat rate of $17.50 per hour they would lose they annual leave, sick leave, long service leave and employer contribution superannuation. As “small businesses”, they would even be responsible for their own WorkCover premiums.

Incredibly, this sham arrangement already applies for the majority of the 70 workers employed at the company’s Adelaide factory in the suburb of Hendon.

The union involved in the dispute, the National Union of Workers (NUW), has calculated that the workers involved would be worse off taking the $17.50 an hour from the company as contractors. It has called on the Howard government to intervene and declare the drive to convert workers who are clearly employees into “independent contractors” as illegal.

However, the federal gov­ernment is dragging its feet on the issue. A spokesperson for workplace relations minister Kevin Andrews last week promised to obtain a report on the matter and to consider its legality: “He [Mr Andrews] will not tolerate employees termed as independent contractors for the sake of employers, thus losing their rights and all that sort of stuff as employees”.

The sincerity of the comment is open to question. During the Liberals’ campaign before the last federal elections, John Howard made the following statement in support of legislation that the government is still promising to ram through:

“A new Independent Contractors Act would ensure that freedom of contract for independent contractors is enshrined and preserved, that they have a firewall around them to protect them from the deprivation of unions and unfriendly Labor governments who would seek to impose limits and constraints on their freedom to contract.”

The NUW has also called on the government to close off legal loopholes that currently allow employers to use the courts to delay the determination of the issues for up to two years and chew through about $50,000 of union funds.

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