WorkChoices? No choice!
Green Left Weekly's Liam Mitchell exposes some of the many lies contained in WorkChoices, the federal government's new industrial relations package.
Myth: WorkChoices will protect minimum conditions by law.
Fact: Only the minimum wage and casual loading, a 38-hour standard week, four weeks' annual leave and sick/carers' leave will be protected by law. Fifty-two weeks' parental leave will also be legislated, but the fine print prevents both parents taking time off together (apart from the first week) and any time taken by one parent reduces the time available to the other.
Basic award conditions, including public holidays, meal breaks, annual-leave loading, penalty rates, shift/overtime rates and allowances, will not be protected and can be "negotiated" away in an individual contract (Australian Workplace Agreement — AWA). This will usually involve the employer buying off these conditions for cash at a reduced rate. Many new workers are finding that a condition of being employed is that these conditions be given up; there is no negotiation.
Myth: WorkChoices will "provide a safety net for the low paid".
Fact: The new Fair Pay Commission will be stacked against workers. Its chairperson, Ian Harper, has actually said that the minimum wage should not be based on the cost of living, and the government — which now gets to appoint all FPC members — has opposed minimum wage increases consistently since it took office.
The only guarantee out of this misnamed commission is that workers will be in a race to the bottom.
Myth: WorkChoices will protect workers against unlawful termination. Those in companies with more than 100 employees will have access to unfair dismissal laws.
Fact: Ninety percent of workers will have their access to unfair dismissal provisions taken away. Most workers will lose basic rights such as receiving three written warnings before they can be sacked. The probationary period will be increased to six months, a longer period during which a worker can be sacked with no reason given.
Even the criteria used to assess the size of a company are being fudged. The 100 employees required for a company to be subject to unfair dismissal provisions does not include casual workers, unless they have worked for the company for more than 12 months. All seasonal workers are excluded from access to unfair dismissal provisions.
Many of the reasons deemed unlawful as a basis for sacking someone are contained in other legislation, but these will not help protect workers' jobs since workers facing unfair (or unlawful) dismissal are usually targeted for reasons other than those actually given by the employer.
A sacked worker will no longer have recourse to the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) and will have to take their claim through common law. If a sacked worker applies for it and is assessed to be in financial hardship, the government will pay a paltry $4000 towards the worker's legal costs. The approximate cost to a sacked worker of such a case will be around $30,000.
Myth: Awards will be preserved and award conditions will be maintained.
Fact: Workers cannot legally be forced off awards, however this is already happening. New workers can go onto award conditions if their boss gives them the option.
The number of allowable matters in awards will be cut and the legislation includes a list of non-allowable matters to be removed from every award. These include skill-based career paths, union picnic days and trade union training leave, conditions that the unions have won through decades of struggle.
A number of awards set restrictions on sub-contractors or the use of labour hire, or set conditions for these workers. These conditions will be removed immediately, enabling employers to put new workers on for less than that received by the rest of the workers employed at the work site.
WorkChoices involves the establishment of the government-appointed Award Review Taskforce, which will "rationalise" the number of awards and "simplify" award conditions. New awards will be created by the IRC only on the recommendation of the taskforce through amalgamating other awards.
Any new awards will not retain conditions that are above the Fair Pay and Conditions Standard, meaning that workers on awards with better long-service leave provisions, for example, will lose these advantages when the awards are rewritten.
Myth: WorkChoices won't remove the right to join a union, or outlaw union agreements or lawful industrial action.
Fact: The formal rights will still be in place, but the legislation will make it tougher for unions to effectively represent their members.
Unions can still negotiate an agreement on behalf of members, but non-members cannot join strike action to support the agreement, or even vote for it (to do so would make the strike illegal). Conversely, anyone can vote for, or strike to support, a non-union collective agreement.
Industrial action will still be legal during a recognised bargaining period for a new collective agreement. However, the bargaining period can be suspended or terminated by government decree, or by the IRC or through legal action by an affected third party. The reasons for suspending or terminating a bargaining period include "significant damage to the economy" and pattern bargaining (where common conditions are being sought in two or more agreements by a union, using a similar "course of conduct", such as strikes).
Strike action will have to be voted for in a secret ballot of union members run by the Australian Electoral Commission. This can take several days, giving the employer time to wear down the solidarity and strength of the union members.
Unions' right of entry into a workplace will be restricted. The government, not workers themselves, will decide which union officials are "fit and proper" to represent workers. An employer can tell union officials where they can and cannot go in a workplace, and where to meet the union members, enabling the boss to hide unsafe areas from the union officials.
A union official must give an employer 24 hours' notice before entering a workplace, potentially allowing a boss to clean up an accident site before inspection, as well as a detailed reason for entering a workplace, ending any confidentiality between the union member and union representative.
Even informal discussion of wages and conditions has been criminalised — a worker or union official who reveals that a person is in receipt of an AWA, let alone discusses the content of that AWA, can be sentenced to jail.
Myth: "WorkChoices will provide greater flexibility".
Fact: No employer is going to sign many agreements, each with different conditions, for workers doing the same job; it would be an administrative nightmare. So, all AWAs in a workplace will probably have the same conditions.
The only flexibility in this system, therefore, will be the boss's flexibility to cut conditions to save a buck.
[Liam Mitchell is an Australian Manufacturing Workers Union activist in Sydney, and a member of the Socialist Alliance.]
From Green Left Weekly, November 9, 2005.
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