About 260 employees at hearing implant manufacturer Cochlear's the Lane Cove factory in north Sydney are being pressured by the company to accept Australian Workplace Agreements (individual employment contracts) despite having twice voted in favour of having a union-negotiated collective agreement.
While Cochlear proposed to its shareholders to increase its directors' remuneration from $500,000 to $1.5 million a year, it has refused to negotiate with the workers' union — the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) — and told the workers to accept the individual contracts by November 6 or not to turn up to work the following day. So far, neither has happened.
Under the proposed individual contracts some of the workers could lose up to $80 a week in entitlements, according to Tim Ayres, the union's NSW assistant secretary.
Cochlear has a predominantly female work force, with many of the workers being from non-English speaking backgrounds. The workers have consistently rejected their employer's attempts to lock their union out of wage negotiations.
In secret ballots conducted by the AMWU, workers have called upon Cochlear to negotiate with the union. The company's plans to relocate its premises by 2010 add to the uncertainty these workers have about their future.
Meanwhile, threats from the company to stop workers from speaking foreign languages at work or face dismissal have been reported by the AMWU to the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board.
Cochlear workers from the Lane Cove facility have been appearing on TV as part of the anti-Work Choices "Real People — Real Stories" advertising campaign. In the ad, one of the workers says: "The company want us on individual contracts but we want the union to represent us. The laws have taken away our right to choose."
Socialist Alliance workers, union members and delegates want to extend our solidarity and offer our support to Cochlear's workers, in this unfair and ruthless attack to their basic human rights, and join in the struggle to fight back, to actually reclaim our right to choose. Because when they touch one of you, they touch all of us.
[Beatriz Bassi is the convener of the Socialist Alliance Sydney trade union committee.]