The Guardian 13 July, 2005

Public backs workers' rights

Australian workers will be left with just three core entitlements — the minimum wage, unpaid parental leave and sick leave — if Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews gets his way. As more of the Howard government's anti-union agenda came out, polls have revealed that the majority of Australians who are aware of the government's industrial relations changes are opposed to them, including 23 percent of government supporters.

At the same time momentum is building for the "Last Weekend" [before the new Senate sits] as regional communities around NSW plan local BBQs to back the Sydney day. The star of the ABC's television's Glass House, Corrine Grant, has pitched into the Rights at Work campaign and will MC the massive family protest planned for Sydney Olympic Park on August 7.

Ms Grant, who will front a team of performers, comedians and speakers, has also cut a radio ad that will run in the lead-up to the event.

Working families from Sydney and surrounding areas are being urged to attend the picnic — to send a clear message to the Howard government that they will not sit back and see their time with family and friends whittled away.

Confirmed acts for August 7 include The Whitlams' frontman Tim Freedman, kids' favourites The Hooley Dooleys, Kid Confucious, The Chaser team and house band Astro Tabasco. More acts will be announced in the lead-up to the day.

Five-day week targeted

The traditional five-day working week, penalty and overtime rates will all be up for grabs under the federal government's new regime.

Andrews almost came clean on minimum standards that Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) will be benchmarked against in an interview with Ben Packham of Melbourne's Herald Sun. He confirmed his intention to get rid of the "no disadvantage test" for judging the validity of his secret, individual contracts. He said it would be replaced by five legislated minimum conditions.

These will be a 38-hour working week, sick leave, parental leave, the minimum wage and four weeks' annual leave.

But then he revealed two of those legislated minimums would not be minimums at all. He told the Herald Sun that weekend rates, overtime and penalty rates could be bargained away, rendering the 38-hour week entirely meaningless.

He said work could be performed up to seven days a week and penalty or weekend payments "would depend on the arrangement between the employer and the employee". He went on to say workers would be able to "trade away" two weeks of their annual leave, effectively leaving the minimum at the US standard of two weeks.

Furthermore, wherever award or agreement entitlements to annual, sick or parental leave exceeded community minimums, the latter would apply for benchmarking AWAs.

ACTU secretary Greg Combet said Andrews had confirmed workers would lose out under his proposals. According to the Office of the Employment Advocate, created especially to push AWAs into workplaces, more than 54,000 new AWAs were filed in the last three months, with the biggest numbers in traditionally low-paid industries — accommodation, cafes, restaurants and retailing.

The revelations came as the Minister threatened building industry employers with a federal government blacklist, in defiance of advice from his own department. The Workplace Relations Minister tried to stop thousands of Victorian companies signing off on a negotiated agreement with the Construction Division of the CFMEU by holding hundreds of millions of dollars worth of government projects over their heads.

Canberra has repeatedly interfered in building industry negotiations, going as far as setting out a "code" of conditions employers must not agree to, if they want to be considered for federally-funded projects. Andrews' department has ticked off the latest CFMEU agreement as code compliant but, in a last ditch bid to scuttle the deal, the Minister warned he might change the code to render it retrospectively non-compliant.

Andrews delivered the threat after the Master Builders Assoc­iation locked into the CFMEU's 2005-2008 enterprise bargaining agreement, which delivers standard wage rises and retains 36-hour week provisions.

CFMEU Assistant National Secretary, Dave Noonan, called on Andrews to "butt out" of the negotiations and to "stop interfering with the agreement-making process.

"Kevin Andrews is hell-bent on this worker bashing agenda but it is not working. Hundreds of Victorian companies, employing thousands of workers, have signed the agreement", Mr Noonan said.

"Workers have given it a tick, employers have given it a tick and his own department has ticked off on it. The only person trying to make trouble is the Minister."

Howard exposed

Prime Minister Howard's accusation — that public rejection of his anti-union plans is a result of the union movement lying about the affect of the new laws — is not only a slur against the ACTU's campaign but an insult to the Australian public, that diverse mass of people who Howard always insists he speaks for.

The ACTU is confirming a harsh reality that people already understand, one that many are already living, thanks to the government's economic rationalist policies.

The employers behind the planned attack on the unions are telling Howard — as a headline in The Australian newspaper put it — to "sell his vision". But he has been selling it for almost ten years in government, and he's been peddling it for his entire political career.

Behind Howard's claim that the people have been taken in by falsehoods is the real contempt he has for them. It is the cynicism of an inveterate liar.

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