The Guardian 21 February, 2007

WorkChoices: The shameful truth

Bob Briton

Howard’s new Workplace Relations Minister, Joe Hockey, may well have a softer public image than his predecessor, Kevin Andrews, but when it comes to implementing the notorious WorkChoices legislation he is pushing the same hard, anti-worker line. In recent media interviews he has trotted out the same old myths about WorkChoices and the performance of the Howard Government since taking office. Unfortunately, for the workers of Australia, the facts about living standards under the Coalition Government do not resemble the spin. Despite the best efforts of the government to keep the facts about WorkChoices under wraps, the real picture of life under WorkChoices is coming to light.

In May 2006, the Office of the Employment Advocate (OEA) released statistics about the first batch of post-WorkChoices Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs). The results were so shocking and caused such a public outcry that the Office resolved never to publish such sample data again.

The OEA had "concerns about the methodology" of some people looking at the data and that they were "focussing on certain characteristics in isolation, without considering what else the parties may have agreed". This approach "had the potential to produce misleading and distorted results".

The simple facts were, in the first batch of WorkChoice AWAs:

  • 100 per cent removed at least one "protected" award condition (government advertising made much of the award conditions "protected by law")

  • 16 per cent excluded ALL protected award conditions

  • four fifths of the AWAs removed overtime pay

  • over three fifths of the "agreements" abolished penalty rates

  • most abolished or reduced meal breaks and public holiday pay; and

  • most abolished shiftwork loading and large numbers abolished allowances and other conditions.

    The Australian people were not told how many AWAs reduced or abolished redundancy pay because the OEA was not obliged to report on conditions that were not "protected by law". No information was provided by the government on how workers in tight sectors of the labour market (such as mining) might be treated compared to workers in retail and hospitality, where they have extremely limited bargaining power. The government has kept this information from the parliament and the people despite repeated requests from Labor members of estimates committees.

    More awful truth

    Last week, David Peetz of Griffith University’s Business School released the results of his research into the WorkChoices in a report entitled Brave New Work Choices: What Is the Story So Far? It confirms the trend established by the first WorkChoices AWAs.

    Around 20,000 workers a month are being stitched up into AWAs or other non-union agreements that remove formerly protected conditions:

  • 82 per cent have reduced or abolished overtime pay

  • 63 per cent have abolished penalty rates

  • 64 per cent have axed annual leave loading

  • 69 per cent has abolished or reduced rest breaks

  • 73 per cent have reduced or abolished public holiday payments; and

  • 52 per cent have abolished shift work loading.

    All these attacks have produced exactly the results the bosses wanted. "Average earnings in the year to September 2006 dropped in real terms by 1.2 per cent — that is, working Australians have experienced a fall in the value of average weekly earnings of $13 a week as a result of downward pressure on wages and rising living costs", ACTU Secretary Greg Combet noted.

    Despite a labour market which is supposedly at its tightest in 30 years, workers’ wages and conditions are falling. This is no accident or seasonal statistical blip; it is the result of a carefully planned theft.

    Women have fared worst of all. Their pay has shrunk by two per cent. Hockey is making much of the flexibility of working arrangements in the new IR regime. He is pushing the myth that parents are trading hard won conditions for more flexible hours or more time at home with the family. No figures are forthcoming to show just how "family friendly" AWAs have turned out to be.

    Women make up about 60 per cent of the retail and hospitality industries where "flexibility" is almost always a one-sided affair in which the demands of the workplace come way before the needs of family.

    Power in the union

    When David Peetz compared pay and conditions under the various arrangements available, some predictable results were obtained. Union-negotiated collective agreements had the best pay increases (4.03 per cent on average — just above the official inflation rate of 3.95 per cent). Non-union collective agreements were next — 3.60 per cent annualised wage increases.

    No data is available for AWAs. Pre-WorkChoices AWAs had an average 2-2.5 per cent per annum pay increase. All that is known is that 22 per cent of current AWAs provide for no wage increase at all during the life of the agreement (up to five years) so it is easy to deduce that workers on AWAs will be severely financially disadvantaged by comparison to those covered by union-negotiated collective agreements. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many slash wage rates and conditions.

    For many workers it is now the choice of an employer’s AWA or the door, as members of the netball team in Queensland recently discovered.

    The big picture

    WorkChoices is only the latest means to pursue the same old capitalist agenda of squeezing the workers in order to give a greater share of the takings from what they produce to the owners of capital. The results of the past 20 years of the intensified and globalised neo-liberal program in Australia continue to roll in and it is no surprise that the big winners have been the super-rich while the big losers are the battlers on the bottom of the heap.

    Sir Anthony Atkinson of Oxford University spoke at the University of NSW last week and confirmed that Australia is following the OECD pattern in which the top decile of earners have increased their income by 10 per cent compared to the median group while the bottom decile has scarcely improved their position since 1984 despite massive increases in productivity. Executive salaries are 98 times higher than those of average workers — up from 27 times in 1992. The top one per cent "are able to live a life quite different from the rest of us in a way that was not the case in 1984", Sir Anthony said.

    A separate UN report into the health of Australian children shows they have worse results for key health indicators than in other wealthy OECD country. UNICEF found that children from poor families scored by far the worst. Around 12 per cent of Australian kids now live in families where total family income is less than half the country’s median family income. Cath Smith of the Victorian Council of Social Service noted that the changing work arrangements (such as those promoted under WorkChoices) are pushing many workers, especially single parents and low-skilled workers to the brink of poverty.

    Back to index page