Howard's lies on industrial relations 'reforms'


Sue Bolton

When Prime Minister John Howard returned early from holidays on July 7 to combat public opposition to his government's proposed anti-worker/anti-union laws, he repeatedly refused to guarantee that no worker would be worse off under the proposed new laws.

The government's line of attack is that the ACTU is lying about the planned new legislation, expected now to be introduced in parliament in early October. However, it is Howard and workplace relations minister Kevin Andrews who are lying to the public about the impact of the government's industrial relations "reforms".

LIE #1: There will be new safeguards for wages and conditions, guaranteed by federal legislation.

FACT: Individual agreements, known as Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs), and collective agreements are subject to a "no disadvantage test". Currently, the award is taken as the base level of pay and conditions that AWAs and collective agreements must meet.

The government is proposing that there be a minimalist "safety net" that AWAs and collective agreements must meet that covers the minimum wage plus four other conditions: annual leave, sick leave, unpaid parental leave and the 38-hour week.

Conditions that will no longer be included in the safety net include redundancy pay, overtime pay, shift-work penalty rates, weekend and public holiday pay rates, annual leave loading, work rosters, work and family rights, allowances, skill-based pay increases, and a host of other award conditions.

There is no guarantee that employers will be forced to abide by the new safety net. Even under the current system, the Office of the Employment Advocate has certified many AWAs without verifying that they meet the "no disadvantage test".

LIE #2: Workers will be safeguarded with a modern award system.

FACT: People who are offered jobs on condition that they accept an AWA, or workers who have already signed an AWA, are excluded from award protection, and the new minimalist safety net will exclude most conditions contained in awards.

LIE #3: Workers will be protected against unlawful dismissal.

FACT: This claim is deceptive because unlawful dismissal will cover a much more restrictive set of conditions — discrimination on the grounds of family responsibilities, pregnancy, race and gender, union membership and political affiliations — than does unfair dismissal.

Unfair dismissals can be a result of all of these forms of discrimination, but can also result from other forms of victimisation as well.

Unfair dismissal laws are far easier for sacked workers to use because they only have to front up to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. If a sacked worker wants to challenge an unlawful dismissal, he or she has to hire a lawyer and begin proceedings in an ordinary court. How many recently sacked workers can afford that?

The government plans to exempt all businesses with 100 or less staff from unfair dismissal laws, resulting in 99% of Australian companies being exempted from the laws and 3.6 million workers losing access to the laws.

LIE #4: We won't cut four weeks' annual leave.

FACT: Andrews advocates that workers should be able to cash in two of their four weeks' annual leave. He describes this as a choice. But the experience of workers in Western Australia — where this provision exists — is that employers demand that workers sign AWAs that only allow for two weeks' annual leave or they don't get hired.

At Perth's West Australian daily newspaper, journalists are told that they'll only get a pay rise if they sign an AWA. The AWA says that West Australian Newspapers "may, at its absolute discretion, pay out up to 10 days of your annual leave entitlement each year".

LIE #5: We won't cut award wages.

FACT: The majority of workers are on above-award wages so this is an easy claim. But the government doesn't promise to maintain the value of the minimum wage over time.

The government already plans a de facto wage freeze for minimum wage workers, because the new Australian Fair Pay Commission that will set the minimum wage won't meet until September/October next year.

Andrews and Howard have been quite open about wanting to see lower or no increases in the minimum wage. Andrews has stated that minimum wage workers are $70 over paid.

The federal government has opposed every single minimum wage increase since being elected in 1996. If the government's recommendations had been adopted, the minimum wage would be $50 a week lower.

The government's expressed reason for establishing the Australian Fair Pay Commission is to ensure that "economic considerations" are taken into account in setting minimum wage rates because wage rises for low-paid workers are "pricing them out of a job". The government has not presented any evidence to justify this claim.

The economic considerations to be taken into account by the commission will relate to the profitability of employers and not the ability of workers to survive on their wage.

LIE #6: We won't abolish awards.

FACT: The government has cleverly decided to maintain awards as a shell, while making them meaningless for most workers with the "no disadvantage test" relating to a minimalist new safety net of just five minimum conditions instead of the award.

LIE #7: We won't remove the right to join a union.

FACT: The biggest reason why workers don't join unions is because they fear being victimised by their employer. The government intends to entrench such fear by denying most workers access to unfair dismissal laws.

Under the new legislation, unions will be limited to two workplace visits a year for workplaces where the union doesn't have an enterprise agreement. The employer will be able to determine the time and place where the union organiser can meet members (for example, the room beside the boss's office).

LIE #8: We won't take away the right to strike.

FACT: Under the planned legislation, unions have to hold Australian Electoral Commission-run secret ballots before taking industrial action. These ballots can take up to 10 days to organise, so they are designed to stop industrial action. Unions will have to pay 20% of the cost of the ballot.

There will be new restrictions on protected action. Any "third party" that claims to have been affected by the industrial action can apply to have it stopped and there will be extended "cooling off" periods.

There will be more severe penalties against individual workers and unions for engaging in "illegal" industrial action. The government has given powers to the Office of the Employment Advocate and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to interfere in disputes and take legal action against a union even when the employer doesn't want to pursue legal action.

LIE #9: We won't outlaw union agreements.

FACT: In other developed countries, the right of workers to bargain collectively and for employers to recognise this choice, is enshrined in legislation, but not in Australia.

Australian employers often obstruct collective bargaining agreements by stringing out negotiations while offering pay rises only to those workers who are prepared to sign an AWA. With the new, "simpler", process for AWAs, this practice could become more common.

LIE #10: It will remain unlawful for workers to be forced to sign an AWA or be sacked for refusing to sign an AWA.

FACT: The government claims that workers will have the choice of signing or not signing AWAs. However, the government's own actions, let alone the actions of private sector employers, belies this "promise".

The government has threatened to withhold funding increases from universities unless they offer individual contracts to all staff by August 31, 2006. These AWAs override certified agreements.

The government is applying a similar approach to other federally funded institutions — TAFE colleges, aged care institutions, and ACT and Northern Territory schools and hospitals.

Andrews' own Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (DEWR), and John Howard's Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet offer new employees no choice. New employees are required to sign AWAs as a condition of employment.

DEWR's negotiating strategy with the union is to string out the negotiation process over the certified agreement while offering pay increases to workers who agree to sign AWAs. Staff on fixed-term contracts have been told that they have to sign AWAs if they want permanent positions.

In the private sector, it'll be easier for employers to say that if you want the job, you sign an AWA, or if you want a permanent position, you sign an AWA.

LIE #11: Unfair dismissal laws have cost jobs; businesses in the federal system with up to 100 employees will be exempted from those provisions to generate more jobs.

FACT: A Dun and Bradstreet survey published on July 12 found that more than 80% of businesses employing 100 or less workers had no plans to employ new staff when they become exempt from unfair dismissal laws.

LIE #12: Workers on AWAs currently earn 13% more than workers on certified agreements and 100% more than workers on awards.

FACT: If the 850,000 managers who are on AWAs and who earn an average salary of $1736.70 per week are counted as "workers", this figure is true. However, this is only a small minority of the people who are on AWAs.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics' book Australian Social Trends 2005 reveals that non-managerial employees on AWAs earn just $805.10 a week, 4% more than those on collective agreements ($775.30), and 82% more than those on the award rates ($442.90).

But non-managerial employees on AWAs worked 6% more hours than those on collective agreements and 27% more than those on award rates. The average hourly rate of pay for non-managerial employees on AWAs is 2% less per hour than those on collective agreements.

Part-time workers on AWAs earned 25% less per hour than those on collective agreements. Casual workers on AWAs earned 15% less than those on collective agreements.

Non-managerial women employees on individual contracts earn around $2.50 an hour (or $70 a week) less than women on collective agreements.

Women who are permanent part-time employees and on individual contracts are even worse off, earning on average $5 an hour or $141 a week less than female counterparts on collective agreements. They also earn less than permanent part-time women on awards.

[Sue Bolton is the national trade union coordinator for the Socialist Alliance.]

From Green Left Weekly, July 20, 2005.

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