Seven rights workers need now

August 16, 2019
A protest against the cuts to penalty rates in Sydney on July 8. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

Following the re-election of the Coalition government, Prime Minister Scott Morrison flagged the need for industrial relations (IR) reforms. Under the façade of “ensuring integrity” and “improving productivity”, these reforms seek to once again attack trade unions and workers.

Australia already fails to adhere to standards set by the International Labour Organization and recently slipped into the International Trade Union Confederation’s category of guilty of “regular violations” of labour law.

IR laws need reforming, particularly given the increasingly-precarious nature of work. But none of Morrison’s proposed reforms will help workers.

Instead, here are seven reforms that workers desperately need and that unions should fight for in order to genuinely begin to change the rules for workers.

1. Restore penalty rates: The Fair Work Commission (FWC) cut penalty rates for workers in the hospitality, retail, fast-food and pharmaceutical sectors in February 2017.

A form of overtime pay that guaranteed workers higher wages for working inconvenient times such as late nights, weekends or public holidays, penalty rates have incrementally been reduced by up to 50% over several years.

These cuts have meant that nearly half a million of the country’s lowest-paid workers have lost up to $6000 a year in pay.

Employees in these affected industries already suffer some of the poorest working conditions. The majority of them are women, people of colour and young.

Politicians claim the changes reflect the “realities of modern-day employment”, but if there is no difference between working weekdays and weekends, why does parliament not sit on Saturday or Sunday?

2. Criminalise wage theft: As workers become more informed of their rights in the digital age, the practice of businesses intentionally paying employees below the legally established industry award has come to light.

Wage theft has become systemic in the hospitality industry, where many companies adopting it as a business model.

The latest scandal involving multi-millionaire George Colombaris stealing some $8 million in wages from his workers shows why wage theft should be treated as a criminal offence, with jail time as a possible sanction rather than the tame fines currently in place.

3. Industry-wide bargaining: Australia’s enterprise bargaining system makes it very difficult for workers to fight for pay rises. To earn above the award, workers, generally represented by a union, have to negotiate an enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) with their employer.

The problem is the narrow scope of application of these EBAs. Even if workers get through the exhausting process of negotiating an EBA, which expires every couple of years, it only covers workers in a specific workplace, and not those doing the same job elsewhere in the industry. Workers are legally prevented from negotiating industry-wide agreements.

Workers’ strength lies in their numbers. Being able to bargain collectively across an industry would ensure workers are in a better position to defend their pay and conditions.

4. Abolish junior rates: The minimum wage set by the FWC is not the minimum for some. Despite doing the same work as their colleagues, those under the age of 21 continue to be paid less simply because of their age.

This is blatant discrimination. Expenses such as rent, groceries or transport are not charged based on a person’s age, so why should pay be any different?

Many young workers are not simply trying to earn a bit of extra pocket money; in many cases, they are working to support themselves and their families.

Companies such as McDonald’s — 70% of whose workforce is under 21 — relies on the super-exploitation of its young workers to raise profits. 

Unions such as the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) are right to ask, “if young workers aren’t expected to do less work, why should they be paid less?”

5. Right to strike: The right to withdraw one’s labour is a principal distinction between dignified work and slavery. While the Fair Work Act 2009 (FWA) permits some forms of industrial action, these are highly limited and confined.

The Act ultimately seeks to diminish trade union power.

Under the Act, unions must apply to the FWC to gain approval for industrial actions. Even when it is granted, it is severely restricted. Picketing and secondary boycotts, for example, are forbidden.

When these draconian rules are broken, unions and their officials can expect fines in the tens of thousands of dollars.

This positioning of strike action as an administrative, token and highly-regulated experience, rather than a free and democratic expression of workers’ power, curtails workers’ rights and ultimately leads to declining pay and working conditions.

6. Rights for gig economy workers: While technological innovation can be good, under capitalism, it is generally the bosses who benefit from it while workers suffer.

This can be seen with the rise of the gig economy, which is comprised of extremely casualised workers surviving through individual “gigs” rooted entirely on the needs of the company.

Considered contractors rather than employees under workplace law, gig economy workers lack the rights afforded to others.

Gig workers deserve the right to be covered by an award, to collectively bargain, to appropriate compensation for late cancellation of work and various other conditions such as penalty rates, paid leave and superannuation.

While companies such as Uber or Deliveroo have praised the “flexibility” of the gig economy, such flexibility is currently asymmetrical and is no substitute for rights enshrined in law.

7. End exploitation of migrant workers: Migrant workers are workers, but the reality is that non-citizens face an even more precarious situation than most.

Under the Temporary Skill Shortage (subclass 482) and subclass 457 Temporary Work (Skilled) visas, migrant workers must obtain sponsorship from an employer as a condition of migration.

Such sponsorship can be revoked at any time, leaving migrant workers entirely at the whim of their bosses.

This extremely exaggerated power differential means migrant workers living with the fear that any complaint about pay or conditions carries with it the very real possibility of revocation of sponsorship and, ultimately, deportation.

Rather than pandering to racist and economically-nationalist views, we need to empower migrant workers. Their future should not be left in the hands of their employers.

Their rights to equal pay and union representation, among others, should be guaranteed in law, along with the right to permanent residency and citizenship.

[Leo Crnogorcevic is a Year 12 student, former hospitality worker and Hospo Voice member, Football Referees Association of Victoria member and Socialist Alliance member.]

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