The Guardian 19 October, 2005

Defending the status quo

With lies, damned lies and statistics dominating the workplace debate, Canberra has decided to take statistics out of the equation. An Australian Bureau of Statistics circular reveals that the pay setting component of the next two-yearly survey of Employee Earnings and Hours has been canned, ensuring there will be no statistical review of workplace change before Australians cast their ballots in the 2007 federal election.

"The ABS has decided not to include questions on pay setting arrangements in the 2006 EEH survey", the circular says.

The ABS is a federal government agency that comes under the control of Treasurer, Peter Costello, an aggressive advocate of secret individual contracts.

Methods of Pay Setting took up nearly half of the 2004 survey into Earnings and Hours.

But its key findings were a huge embarrassment to the Howard Government, revealing that, in the eight years since workers were given the "choice" of signing AWAs, less than 2.5 percent had taken it.

Since then, Canberra has turned choice over to employers, giving them the ability to force workers onto AWAs as a condition of employment. It has paid to have pattern AWAs developed, sparing business the cost, and in practice scrapped the no-disadvantage test so employers can use individual contracts to undercut awards and other negotiated agreements.

The government has ditched the stats-based approach and gone for numbers supplied by its Office of the Employment Advocate (OEA).

Just last month, there was a blaze of publicity for a Melbourne function celebrating the take-up of the 750,000th AWA.

The figure, from the Office of the Employment Advocate, came less than two months after its spin doctor, Bonnie Laxton-Blinkhorn said she had no idea how many AWAs were in operation.

Laxton-Blinkhorn explained that the OEA keeps no current total, just the number of registrations since 1996.

Given that the majority of AWAs are for casual or part-time workers and that about 25 percent of Australians change their jobs every year, the running total is next to meaningless.

The ABS 2004 data was also quoted by both the Prime Minister and Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews to bolster their argument that employees would be better off on AWAs. Andrews claimed the differential, with collective agreements, was 29 percent while Howard settled for 13 percent.

When the ABS information was unpacked, however, both those claims were discredited. Howard and Andrews chose weekly wages for their comparisons, but ABS data revealed AWA employees worked significantly longer hours than collective agreement counterparts. Howard and Andrews included managers in their comparisons, and chose to leave out millions of Australians employed on state awards.

When researchers rectified those anomalies, they found hourly rates were higher for people on collective agreements and that, for women, the differential was 11 percent.

Griffith University academic, David Peetz, used the ABS data to conclude that, across the board, AWA workers earned two percent less than those on awards or collective agreements.

"As Minister Andrews said, the facts on AWAs speak for themselves", he said.

Those facts will not be available in the build-up to the next federal election not from the government anyway.

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