The Guardian 19 October, 2005

Government IR offensive on workers:
super-profits "protected by law"

Anna Pha

The main thrust of the next round of Industrial Relations legislation is to break trade unions, prevent workers acting collectively and slash wages and working conditions. Whether it be determining wages and working conditions or attempting to seek justice, the new system is designed to split the unity of the working class so that individual workers compete against each other in a race to the bottom. Under a largely deregulated system employers will be given greater powers to act in an arbitrary manner with virtually no accountability for their super exploitation and abuse of workers. After all, it is the employers, particularly big business, who are behind the Howard Government’s offensive against workers and trade unions. It is they who stand to gain — gain millions and millions of dollars at the expense of workers and their families.

Smashing the collective destroys the source of power and ability of the working class to protect itself. It paves the way for new heights of super-exploitation of labour. Unions are not going to let that happen. Workers will always fight and organise, especially when pushed into a corner.

Instead of workers in a workplace, an occupation or in an industry having common wages and working conditions, employers will be able to "negotiate" different rates and conditions with individual workers or small groups of workers within a workplace. Those willing to forgo penalty rates get the overtime, those sticking to the union get the sack, and so on.

The new regime will be phased in over five years and even then the process of reducing wages and removing working conditions will not stop. The pace of these destructive changes will depend on the success of the trade union movement in resisting them and, linked to that, developments in the political sphere.

Many employers, particularly in the areas of low paid labour, have already forced workers onto Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs — individual employment contracts) and slashed wages and conditions while the Office of Employment Advocate (OEA) has turned a blind eye.

Enterprise bargaining agreements will be replaced by new collective agreements and AWAs — which are legally binding contracts. These collective agreements may be union, non-union, or in some circumstances written and agreed to by the employer with no union or worker involvement!

Workers could lose or see huge reductions in their meal and other breaks, annual leave loadings, allowances, penalty rates, shift/overtime loadings, top-up superannuation and workers’ compensation payments, paid training, training leave, rostered days off, a multitude of occupational health and safety provisions, restrictions on body hire labour and contractors, restrictions on hours of work (length of working day, part-time, casual, etc) — the list is endless.

Almost everything that has been won by workers over the past two centuries of struggle is up for grabs. The only "protection" the government is offering workers is four legislated conditions and minimum wage rates as determined by a low pay commission (dishonestly named the Australian Fair Pay Commission). And two of these conditions are rubbery. The government calls this protecting awards!

A number of important award provisions will be outlawed. These include clauses prohibiting AWAs in a workplace, restricting the use of independent contractors, allowing for industrial action during the life of an agreement, providing that any future agreement must be a union collective agreement, mandating union involvement in dispute resolution, providing a remedy for unfair dismissal, trade union training leave, paid union meetings, conditions relating to the hire of contractors’ labour and union membership.

There is a host of measures to make it extremely difficult for trade unions to recruit, organise, and represent workers and take industrial action. Legal right of entry will be severely curbed, impossible in many workplaces. Many of the provisions open the door to victimisation, harassment and the sack for any worker questioning the diktat of the boss or undertaking union activity.

The already limited right to strike during bargaining periods will be further restricted, with anyone who is affected by strike action having the right to apply for it to cease. Compulsory secret ballots, conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission or private agencies are designed to disadvantage union members by hampering their capacity to take prompt collective action to defend themselves from abuse by their employer.

The primary role of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission will be to prevent and stop industrial action. It loses its compulsory conciliation and arbitration roles. Conciliation and arbitration will be voluntary and the Commission will compete with private outfits for such work.

An Award Review Taskforce will examine classification wages structures — adult, junior, disabled, trainees/apprentices, casual loadings, piece workers and outworkers — and make recommendations to the low pay commission by July 2006, before it takes its first look at minimum wage rates. The taskforce will look at the various provisions of federal and state awards that will come under the new system to form a new, single, "simpler" system.

Federal awards will be rationalised on an industry sector basis; amalgamating, deleting and combining awards, substantially reducing the number and gutting their content in line with other changes.

Businesses with 100 or less employees will be exempt from unfair dismissal laws and those with less than 15 exempt from making redundancy payments.

At the same time as wages and conditions are being driven down, the social security system is being overhauled to throw thousands of people off unemployment and parenting benefits. Being refused a job because you refuse to sign an AWA means no job and no unemployment benefit.

All working people and their families and communities will be affected as incomes drop, hours of work become unpredictable, job insecurity increases and working conditions become more dangerous and intolerable.

The new legislation must also be seen in the context of all the other attacks on ordinary Australians, in particular the new ASIO and police powers masquerading under the guise of "anti-terrorism", which are so broad that they could apply to anyone taking industrial or political action. (See article this week)

It will take the full might of the trade union movement along with the rest of the community — all left and progressive and democratic forces churches, clubs, sporting organisations, civil rights, ethnic and community organisations to defeat this legislation. The broadest possible alliance is required to defeat the Howard Government and these laws. Ultimately, it will take a government of a new type, a government that puts people before profits, to remove the source of this drive for unbridled corporate power. It can be done. So let’s get on with it!

UnFair Pay and Conditions Standard

Comprises the minimum wage set by the Low Pay Commission
(misnamed the Australian Fair Pay Commission) and legislation for:

1. Four weeks paid annual leave — up to two weeks may be cashed in

2. Ten days per annum personal/carer’s leave, includes sick leave a further two days of unpaid carer’s leave for unexpected emergency and for casuals

3. Fifty-two weeks unpaid parental leave. Paid parental leave (including maternity) could be wiped

4. Maximum ordinary hours of work 38 per week does not mean a maximum of 38 hours per week — only used as basis for minimum wage

These are the only guarantees from the Howard Government to protect wages and conditions in Awards, Collective Agreements and AWAs. The Howard Government says "This provides considerably greater protection for Australian families."!!!

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