By Rebecca Meckleberg
A judgment handed down by the full bench of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) on December 23 strips conditions from the hospitality industry award.
The decision cuts a swathe through the hospitality award. It removes: limits on the use of part-time work; ratios of junior staff to adult employees; consultation with unions before major workplace changes; bans on bar staff cleaning toilets; and award protection against unfair dismissal.
The scrapping of junior employment ratios will impact on the employment of older hospitality staff by putting pressure on workers to accept "new deals" that cut their real wages in order to keep their jobs.
The AIRC was obliged to delete provisions that did not comply with the 20 allowable matters specified in the Howard government's Workplace Relations Act passed last year. The AIRC deleted award provisions covering preference for unionists in employment; protection against sexual harassment; preventing unfair dismissal; allowing the right of entry of trade union officials; and the provision of amenities, training, and occupational health and safety. All non-allowable matters in awards that have not yet been gutted will become null and void by July 1.
The commission rejected proposals to wind back redundancy entitlements and to remove provisions stopping firms from docking employees for breakages. The AIRC sidestepped an employer push to remove penalty rates from the industry, deferring a decision until a separate case is heard.
The AIRC introduced a "facilitative" clause that will allow bosses to vary conditions "by agreement" with individuals or a majority of employees at an enterprise. This will allow employers to undermine the award. For example, the clause on hours of work specifies a number of possible arrangements for a full-time employee on an average of 38 hours per week. A working day could be six hours or 11.5 hours with days on and off.
This is an industry that already employs people in appalling conditions, on long shift hours and with no job security. Fifty-six per cent of employees in the hospitality industry are female, 47% are casuals and only 30% work 35 hours or more per week.
Despite the AIRC's claim that the decision was not a test case, employer groups see it otherwise. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry declared the decision a significant step forward in the process of industrial "reform". The Australian Hoteliers Association welcomed the decision's "overall thrust".
The December 24 Australian Financial Review points out in its editorial: "Yesterday's decision underlines the scope firms have under the present system to negotiate better workplace arrangements, even if they are not ideal ... The managers of capital must focus on using the existing system as effectively as they can."
The trade union leaders' response to the decision has been cautious. ACTU assistant secretary Greg Combet welcomed the "case by case" approach. The Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union (LHMWU) claimed success in defending most employment conditions, based on the AIRC's decision to retain "facilitative clauses" which require consultation with unions if union members are present in the workplace.
However, this decision is a major attack on the wages and conditions of workers. The award provisions that were undermined were originally instituted to protect the incomes of an already poorly paid work force. While the AIRC's decision has been justified in terms of the need for "greater flexibility" and "protecting jobs", its real purpose is to cut costs for business and guarantee profits.
The LHMWU has begun a campaign against the attempt to cut penalty rates. It was launched on January 19 with protest actions outside the Novotel hotels in Sydney and Brisbane, and Sofitel in Melbourne.