Don't be fooled by the two-party con trick

Friday, June 1, 2007

Therese Rein has done very nicely under the Coalition government — particularly since its 1996 decision to privatise the Commonwealth Employment Service and set up a private Job Network to steamroll the unemployed into often underpaid and unrewarding jobs. From humble beginnings in Brisbane in 1989, Rein has built up an international employment business with an annual turnover of $175 million. She should be a poster child for the benefits of the Coalition's privatisation drive for business, except that she is also the wife of federal Labor leader Kevin Rudd.

On May 24, the Melbourne Herald Sun revealed that the Australian arm of Rein's company, Work Directions Australia, not only exploited the unemployed, it also screwed its own workers. In June 2006, Work Directions took over a rival, Your Employment Services, and offered workers common law contracts — the kind that Rudd's ALP wants to use to replace individual contracts (AWAs). In return for abolishing penalty rates, overtime and allowances, the workers were offered 45 cents extra an hour: their total pay was $30,000 a year, just above the lowest award classification in the industry. To add insult to injury, 58 of the 220 workers were underpaid (according to the relevant award) to the tune of $70,000.

Labor ducked for cover when this example of an unscrupulous employer using (common law) individual contracts to rob her workers of pay and conditions came to light. It didn't say a word about the fact that this employer had an obvious prejudice against negotiating collective union agreements with staff. But it did move quickly to try to cover up the whole messy business.

For a party marketing its new IR package as a mechanism for "restoring fairness" to the workplace, the fact that Rudd's wife was found to be ripping off her employees was an embarrassment, to say the least. So, within 72 hours of the scandal erupting, Rein announced she would sell the Australian arm of her business to avoid any perceived "conflict of interest" should Rudd be elected PM. Under the federal Welfare to Work program, Rein's company receives funding for each job seeker it places.

Rein and Rudd's move appears to have stemmed political damage to Labor. A Newspoll published on May 29 had Labor's primary vote increasing to 52%, while its two-party preferred lead on the Coalition stretched to 60%-40%.

However, Rein's business practices demonstrate the hollowness of Labor's promise that common law contracts would be "fairer" than AWAs. There's no reason to believe that the individual contracts used by Rein wouldn't be legal under Labor.

Labor is popular because Work Choices, and PM Howard, are so despised. In response, government agencies have dropped reference to the draconian anti-worker laws. The government has also been forced, belatedly, to introduce a "fairness" test for all AWAs introduced since May 11.

But is Labor's promised alternative much better?

The Rein scandal shows that Labor's trumpeting of the virtues of common law contracts as an alternative to AWAs means nothing: different name, same result.

Labor has also reneged on its promise to shut down the Australian Building and Construction Commission with its draconian powers. IR spokesperson Julia Gillard, reported the May 30 Sydney Morning Herald, cited "persistent and pervasive unlawful behaviour in the construction industry" as the reason.

Responding to illegally taped comments by Dean Mighell, Victorian Electrical Trades Union secretary, to a delegates' meeting last year on the success of pattern bargaining, Gillard said: "That's not what Labor's policy is about."

Labor has also reneged on its promise to abolish AWAs, allowing them to remain, at least in the mining industry, until 2013. It has also refused to commit to restoring unions' right of entry to the workplace, promised to maintain the Coalition's ban on strikes outside bargaining periods and will also keep the Coalition's insistence on secret ballots before strikes can take place.

In sum, the ALP is not offering to reverse 11 years of Coalition attacks on working people. Currently, it is promising only to trim the worst aspects of the Welfare to Work policy, while preserving the rest. It says it will abolish temporary protection visas for refugees, but it will maintain mandatory detention and the immigration exclusion zone around Australia. It says it has ruled out nuclear power, but has agreed to more uranium mines. It has even backed down on its promise to reverse the despised "voluntary student unionism" legislation which deprives tertiary students of their political voice.

We do need to get rid of the Howard government, which, if re-elected, will make Work Choices worse. But the union movement's campaign against this massive shift of power in the workplace in favour of the bosses won't have been very successful if a Labor government keeps the majority of Howard's laws intact.

While Labor can still be pushed to the left by an independent mass union campaign, at some point unionists and other activists have to break out of the two-party straight jacket where the best we can hope for, from Labor, is a few minor reforms. While we should give Labor a vote ahead of the Coalition, Labor does not deserve a blank cheque. If we are to reclaim rights stripped away during the last 11 hard years, we need to begin building an alternative that takes working people's rights, not the profitability of big business, as its starting point.

Issue