The Guardian 13 July, 2005

Howard's lies and deception

Anna Pha

The man is incapable of telling the truth. Once again Howard is lying and trying to deceive the people of Australia. There is no limit to the depth of his contempt for workers. No lie is too big when it comes to maintaining his post as Prime Minister of Australia and crucifying workers on behalf of big business.

John Howard is spending millions of dollars of taxpayers' money on a multi-media campaign in an attempt to trick and deceive ordinary people about the nature of his industrial relations "reforms".

The campaign is in response to the ACTU's highly successful and honest campaign and the many trade union and community actions exposing the truth about his government's anti-worker, anti-union agenda. Here are some of the lies and deception that appeared in full page, taxpayer-funded advertisements in the daily print media over the weekend of July 9-10.

LIE: Protect workers against unlawful dismissal

Employers with less than 100 employees will be exempt from the unfair dismissal laws, leaving workers with NO protection whatsoever. Ninety-nine percent of private sector employers have less than 100 employees! Some of the larger companies are looking at how to restructure or the hiring of more "contractors" (legally not counted as employees) so as to avoid unfair dismissal laws.

The government advertisement says that sacking workers on discriminatory grounds such as race, gender, union membership, pregnancy, political affiliation or family responsibilities will remain illegal.

But this legislation makes a mockery of all of these provisions, with employers free to just sack workers when they feel like it. Sacked workers will have NO avenue of redress. If there are less than 20 employees, then there is no obligation to pay redundancy.

DECEPTION: Won't take away the right to strike

No single piece of legislation outlaws all strike action. The right to strike is attacked on many fronts. It will be illegal for building and construction workers to strike during the life of an agreement. Solidarity actions will be illegal.

Lengthy secret ballot provisions and the right of anyone affected by a strike to seek an end to the strike makes what limited rights there will be meaningless. Instead, individual workers, unions and union officials will be subjected to huge fines and damage payments.

DECEPTION: New safeguards for wages and conditions — guaranteed by Federal legislation

The legislation will provide for "4 weeks annual leave", personal/carers' leave, parental leave (including maternity leave), and "a maximum number of 38 ordinary working hours per week". These will constitute the dishonestly named "Fair Pay and Conditions Standard".

NO other award or enterprise agreement provisions will be protected by the Federal legislation. Penalty rates, limits on overtime, payment for overtime, shift loadings, penalty rates, redundancy provisions, training, meal breaks, length of working week, seniority, meal breaks, occupational health and safety: none of these important conditions will be safeguarded by federal legislation. (See below for wages)

LIE: Higher wages

The new "Fair Pay Commission" will from time to time specify a minimum wage rate for adults. This rate can move up or down or be frozen for years on end. The only guarantee given by Howard is that this will not fall below $12.75. The Commission will also determine minimum junior, training and disability wage rates — in the place of minima set in awards. One of the principle aims of the legislation is to reduce wages.

LIE: Safeguard workers rights and conditions

Existing rights and conditions will not be safeguarded. It is the four legislated conditions and an adult wage of $12.75 per hour that will be safeguarded — nothing else. There will not even be wage indexation, nor any guarantees that that rate will rise. The Industrial Relations Commission loses its powers to determine wages and conditions.

DECEPTION: All agreements will be required by law to meet the new test set out by the Australian Fair Pay and Conditions Standard

Sounds great! So what is this standard that replaces awards as a minimum benchmark? It is the minimum wage set by the Fair Pay Commission and the four legislated conditions on leave and working hours (see above).

All the other award conditions, wage rates, etc are rendered unenforceable and lose their legal standing, once an employer gets a worker to sign an AWA, unless they have been included in the AWA.

The only requirement for an AWA is that it meets this "standard". The "standard" in reality, means almost all existing standards are wiped out. The fruits or 150 years of struggle are no longer legally binding. What remains in practice will depend on the strength of the trade union movement to enforce them.

DECEPTION: We won't cut award wages

Employers imposing individual contracts on workers or making collective agreements are free to reduce wages as low as they like, as long as they do not go below the "Fair Pay Commission's" minimum wage.

DECEPTION: We won't cut 4 weeks annual leave

This will be the legislated minimum. But the government has already indicated that workers will be able to cash in two weeks of that leave. In practice, many workers have lost their right to paid leave.

For example, some fast food chains and small employers have pushed through AWAs removing the right of workers to all of their paid leave entitlements — in return for a few extra dollars.

Baker's Delight and Jesters are amongst those having removed the right of permanent employees to paid leave. "If they want to take a holiday they don't get paid", said Jesters Pie Franchisee Dominic Panetta. "They knew that when they went to the interview to get the job." That's what Howard calls "choice". Casual workers and those employed as "contractors" have already been robbed of leave entitlements.

LIE: It will remain unlawful for workers to be forced to sign an AWA

Howard offers workers a "choice": sign the AWA or you won't have a job. It is already lawful for employers to make signing an individual contract a condition of employment. And any existing worker who refuses to sign the boss's AWA could be arbitrarily sacked if the employer has less than 100 employees.

DECEPTION: Simpler, fairer and more flexible workplace agreements

Workplace agreements will be simpler because there won't be much left in them. They will be more flexible — for the boss — with general clauses giving bosses the power to vary wages, working hours and conditions at a moment's notice and obliging workers to follow instructions. And of course, "agreements" (AWAs) mean doing whatever the boss tells you to do, regardless of job description or skills.

LIE: Preserve the right of workers to have a union negotiate a collective agreement if they wish

The right will remain in theory, but will require a strong union presence to put it into practice. Employers will be free to sabotage any agreement by standing over and forcing workers to sign AWAs that override any agreement. In workplaces with less than 100 employees, refusal to sign could mean the sack.

DECEPTION: We won't abolish awards

Awards will be stripped. Employers will be free to impose individual contracts (AWAs) with no obligation to meet ANY of the conditions of an award. The only obligations on employers are to meet the minimum wage set by the "Fair Pay Commission" and the four legislated provisions. In effect awards will become redundant and meaningless over time.

DECEPTION: We won't outlaw union agreements

Of course not. The union won't be allowed in the door to see members (if they haven't already been sacked). Bosses will be able to sign up individual workers one by one. In practice, union agreements can be rendered meaningless.

LIE: …benefits flowing to workers and their families

There is nothing family friendly about no paid leave whatsoever, or having no control over hours of work, no certainty which days you will work, along with low, starvation-level wages.

DECEPTION: We won't remove the right to join a union

Of course you will be allowed to join a union — but don't expect to keep your job if the boss finds out. Your choice will be "join the union or keep your job". If the boss sets up his own company union (which will be on the cards under the new system) then that's your union.

LIE: A stronger economy

Reducing workers' wages and forcing workers to work longer hours and produce more will reduce their capacity to buy what is produced and to pay for services. As a result, particularly if interest rates rise pushing up the cost of credit cards and mortgages, workers and their families will be able to buy less.

Inevitably this results in a downturn in the economy — demand down, supply up. That means a weaker economy and fewer jobs. Privatisation, corporate mergers and takeovers, and rationalisation of businesses will also result in the loss of thousands more jobs. There are no job creation programs.

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