The Guardian 26 September, 2007

WorkChoices, the unsaleable IR system

Bob Briton

Spotlight Stores has announced that it is abandoning Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) for its staff and moving over to a union-negotiated collective agreement. The Australian Cleaning Contractors Association — which represents 150 contract cleaning companies — says it is on the verge of ditching its own AWAs and looking at alternatives.

Workplace Relations Minister Joe Hockey has tried to put the best spin he can on these developments and claimed that the recently introduced "Fairness Test" appears to be working. The truth is that WorkChoices has met solid union and community opposition from day one of its introduction and that cracks are now appearing in the government’s anti-worker industrial relations edifice.

Hockey also pretends to be happy that the Spotlight workers and cleaners will have pay and conditions restored. The Spotlight AWA became infamous throughout the country for stripping away workers’ penalty rates in return for a base pay increase of 2 cents an hour. At the time, the Howard Government defended the attack saying that it would create new jobs.

The government moved quickly to stop details of post-WorkChoices AWAs becoming public when an analysis of the first batch of agreements showed a massive grab back by employers of workers’ public holiday and overtime pay, penalties and other conditions won over decades of struggle.

The scale of the attacks fuelled the union movement’s Your Rights at Work Campaign. The government was forced onto the defensive. It superficially re-jigged its IR package and even stopped referring to it as WorkChoices. A "Fairness Test" was introduced and a media blitz unleashed in an attempt to damp down public anger. No doubt the government hopes the latest development in the Spotlight case will help sell its ill-defined and inadequate "Fairness Test".

"We’ve found that found that agreements are often not fair because hourly rates have not provided fair compensation for changes to conditions such as overtime and penalty rates", Workplace Authority head Barbara Bennett said last week. Spotlight was given 14 days to come up with a less unreasonable AWA and the cleaning contractors told to cough up an extra 66 cents an hour in line with award pay rates in the various states.

Spotlight and the cleaning contractors are claiming that their back down was due to the insurmountable complexity of WorkChoices take two "We had an AWA system in place that was getting rid of all the problems and complexities of awards, and now its more complex and confusing, lamented John Laws of the Australian Cleaning Contractors Association.

"Quite simply, the union movement scared the government … We tried to remove some of the more onerous conditions and provide an AWA which was readily understood, was standard throughout the country, and which would give all sides an incentive to get on with it."

The complexity argument has some justification. Spotlight previously had workers on pre-WorkChoices agreements, WorkChoices agreements not subject to the "Fairness Test" and other who were. Overwhelmingly, however, the latest developments are an indication of the strength of public opposition to the Howard Government’s odious IR regime.

Some commentators see the public back down by Spotlight in particular as part of a bosses’ campaign to soften the government’s image in the lead-up to the Federal Elections.

Suspicion was rife when it was revealed that the organisation behind a multi-million dollar advertising campaign to sell anti-union workplace "reform" was headed up by a Liberal Party heavyweight. The party’s Federal Treasurer, Mark Bethwaite, was a director of the National Business Action right up to the time they began to appear on TV last month.

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