The Guardian 2 November, 2005

Wake-up needed on IR change
"It's happening now"

Rebecca Reilly is the Organinsing Co-ordinator for the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union in NSW. She recently spoke with Anna Pha of The Guardian about the conditions facing many employees in industries covered by her union and how the changes threatened by the Howard Government's forthcoming industrial relations legislation are already a day-to-day reality for many of those workers. It is a disturbing glimpse into the future working life of every Australian unless these laws are defeated through united action.

RR: I think things are, for a lot of workers, pretty bad at the moment particularly under the federal system. There are situations now where people go to apply for a new job, are offered an individual contract, an AWA [Australian Workplace Agreement], they sign or they don't get the job. So there is no choice in it now as it stands. If you're someone who has been unemployed for a period of time you don't really have a choice at all and that's happening in the hospitality industry.

We have had situations where workers have actually contacted us when applying for a job and knowing that an AWA is not a good thing and asked us to come in and try and negotiate. Employers sort of say, "I'll sit down and negotiate with you but I'm not moving on a thing".

So they play out the drama, the soap opera thing with you but they're not going to move on anything because they know there are people out there who will take the job, that aren't educated in relation to what the AWA is doing in reducing the award conditions and, basically, there is a race to the bottom.

AP: Are the workers compensated for the loss of award conditions?

RR: There are situations where employers hire lawyers their brand of lawyers to knock up non-union agreements that reduce penalty rates; that have loaded rates that aren't fully compensated. They may have the loaded rate, they will have the hourly rate and supposedly have a roll-up rate which includes penalty rates for overtime, for unsociable hours, a range of different things rolled up into one rate, but they may not have any safety point in that.

The safety point is where there is some sort of reconciliation after the end of a financial year to see what you would have earned under the award with your penalty rates compared to the loaded rate. If there was a difference you would be paid that difference, which is really important.

Whereas, for example, in the Hotels Award, where there is an opportunity to be on salary, or where you get 25 percent above what the hourly rate is, there is also that safety net there. After the end of the financial year, the hotel must do dual payroll to make sure you were not disadvantaged with the hours you were working and the overtime and the types of shifts you were working that may have attracted penalty rates. So that safety net is there for some workers but not for others.

With non-union agreements, employers generally pay loads of money out to lawyers. They hand pick certain individuals in a consultative committee and then they're negotiating with a lawyer who has already drawn up the agreement. There is no input from workers. Workers don't get a voice on it really. They just get a document that has reduced conditions and wages in it and it basically gets rubber stamped through the Commission. There is not much you can do about it.

We point out things, we argue in relation to how it was conducted, if people were properly consulted about it, etc, etc. But people are working at the moment, today, with substandard conditions. I think that people are really deluded if they think that this type of thing may only happen in a year's time or next year. People need to wake up to that.

Individual Contracts

Regarding the individual contracts that we've seen, that have gone through the Employment Advocate, obviously no one has read them; no one at all has read them because they reduce everything. They reduce meal breaks, rest breaks which causes a whole lot of other issues in relation to occupational health and safety where workers are increasingly made to work exhausting long hours just to make a decent wage. They are not getting the breaks that they need so that they don't injure themselves.

I think you will see that in industries where there are a lot of manual handling issues such as in cleaning, or the making of beds by room attendants and things like that, that people don't get proper breaks. They sustain injuries that stay with them for the rest of their lives.

On the other hand, you have the employers yelling out that their insurance premiums are going through the roof while, at the same time, they are doing nothing to address the issue of why people are injuring themselves. That's because they force people to work harder and don't provide the better equipment needed to make the job easier. It's just push, push, push until breaking point and then some one else will be there to replace you and they will do exactly the same thing.

Workers at the moment in some industries, particularly in industries or workplaces that are not unionised are just getting shafted left, right and centre.

There is a system operating at the moment where the poor are just getting poorer and the most vulnerable in our society are getting kicked harder. As I said before, these draconian changes that Howard is wanting to introduce, actually exist in some workplaces now.

There's a raft of issues associated with that, where people are too scared to speak up on basic things that may be in these AWAs or may be in these non-union agreements, conditions that they are entitled to, that they have not even been getting. So they have reduced conditions that even exist on paper. The employers know that they will not be enforced and they're playing on it.

AP: Could you give some examples of the loss of conditions and the sorts of hours that some people are working?

RR: There are instances where, particularly in relation to hours of work, the span of hours has been dramatically increased. Particularly in areas such as hospitality or cleaning, where there are broken shifts, people's hours are just getting longer and longer because the goal posts in relation to them getting a break between shifts are constantly moving in the employers' favour.

In relation to overtime, it may not be worked out for a month after it was worked. In relation to your hours of work it could be averaged over a month or it could be averaged over two months so where is their real overtime?

The employer goes, "Yeah I'm going to be most profitable at particular points", and puts a lot more labour in at those times. Workers are then working a lot harder and a lot longer without the penalty rates that they deserve for working those extra hours. Employers don't keep workers there when there is nothing to do. If they are there and they are working, the boss is actually making money out of it. However, if they need them to be there, they should be paying workers what they are entitled to.

Loss of penalty rates

A lot of these non-union individual contracts have reduced penalty rates, and some do not even stipulate any. But they are definitely lower than what's set down under the award for working a Saturday night or a Sunday.

Really, the whole reason for penalty rates and the whole reason workers fought for and won them was because they were working unsociable hours where they couldn't spend time with their family and friends and participate in the community. They need to be rewarded for working those hours and that's all going to go. At the moment, some of it has already gone.

A lot of workers don't get a meal break. If they were under the award or a union agreement, if they were to work for so long after their normal finishing time, they would be paid a meal break. That's all gone.

There are issues such as flexible starting times. You could be called up on a particular day that you might have had off; where you've got other plans such as study or family commitments and you are expected to work. If you don't turn up, you won't get the shifts anymore. That's happening right now.

There is an increasing number of workers who are employed as "casual employees". They will work regularly, they will work five days a week, six days a week, seven days a week but they don't get any of the benefits for working like that. They don't get sick leave, annual leave, long service leave, the whole bit. However, they would be expected to have that flexibility but the flexibility is all one way. They can't say, "Look, I can't work this shift because I've got to take my son or daughter to a doctor" or "I've got an exam tomorrow" or whatever. They don't turn up, they don't get the work and it goes to someone else. You are really in the hands of your employer. It's like a carrot being dangled in front of you. The minute you say anything or can't be a 100 percent flexible, that's it, you're gone and that's happening right now.

AP: What sort of turnover is there in the industry?

RR: In hospitality there is generally about a 40 percent turnover.

AP: Every year?

RR: Every year.

AP: So people are really changing employers all the time?

RR: All the time, continuously. It is also a question of not actually being there long enough to organise other workers into a union. It is not just about being able to get an agreement. They are not there long enough or they don't have the breaks or they are working such full-on shifts without proper breaks in between that they don't actually have the time to see each other enough to start to talk, to get organised and get a voice.

AP: To what extent is intimidation a factor?

RR: Hugely. You either do as they say or you're out the door. This involves huge amounts of staff as well. They are concerned about their job security. They may work and they may be supposed to finish at 4 pm but they haven't finished the work that's been allocated even though it is a service based industry where you can't control what will happen.

Some workers, particularly room attendants, will have 15 rooms to clean in an eight-hour period and most of those rooms may have been extremely dirty. That's not taken into consideration so, therefore, a lot of these workers are staying back till 6 pm and 7 pm. That's three hours without getting paid for it and they know, if they put it down, they are going to get harassed about it and told that they can't do their job properly and that they should start looking for another job. They are really trapped.

AP: Would there be less than 100 employees in some of these workplaces? What effect would changes to the unfair dismissal laws have?

RR: There would be a lot of them that would be under a hundred which is really problematic. It's problematic in the hospitality industry in the sense that there are a lot of unlawful terminations, that's just the nature of it. There's sexual harassment and all those sorts of issues. But you tell me what hospitality worker would be able to run an unlawful termination through the courts. They can't sit there and wait for that long. That is going to take years to get and there are the costs associated with it. But what are you suppose to do, sit around until that occurs and then have a black mark against your name within the industry?

I worked at a particular hotel for a certain period of time. Outrageous things would happen that were the employer's fault. You would be terminated unfairly, unjustly or unlawfully and then you would have this mark against your name when you go to the next employer.

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