By Jennifer Thompson
The ACTU and federal government have announced that they will appeal against a non-union enterprise flexibility agreement between the Tweed Valley Fruit Processors and their approximately 45 employees. The federal Coalition supports the agreement, saying it conforms to its version of the "no disadvantage" test for enterprise bargains. The issue has snowballed with revelations of intimidation and standover tactics by the Tweed Valley boss, combined with significant cash payments for workers to vote for the agreement. The argument over whether the agreement complies with the "no disadvantage" provisions of Labor's enterprise bargaining legislation shows up the way enterprise bargaining is being used by bosses to undermine award wages and working conditions.
The sticking point in the agreement, approved last month by the federal Industrial Relations Commission, is the end of an eight days' annual paid sick leave entitlement. The financial equivalent of eight days sick leave is to be rolled into an annualised salary along with a clutch of other award conditions, including annual leave loading, overtime, breaks and penalty rates.
Workers should be worried that companies can get deals approved which give away basic conditions like sick leave, especially when the company has done so with a $26,500 federal government grant and intimidation to the level that workers were afraid to vote against the agreement.
The Sydney Morning Herald's Brad Norington, writing on September 21, noted that Liberal industrial relations spokesperson Peter Reith's support for the Tweed Valley agreement "undermines the credibility of the minimum conditions he intends to guarantee as an unassailable right, if they can be traded off so easily for a cash equivalent".
Reith had been selling the Liberal IR policy by saying the Coalition would retain a "no disadvantage" test, but meaning something very different to Labor's "no disadvantage" test in the current legislation. Under the Liberal plan, enterprise deals will not be compared with an existing award, as Labor's currently is, but with much-reduced minimum criteria.
Reith has tried to indicate to business that the policy would allow a much greater assault on award conditions than Labor's does at present. He doesn't want to say exactly what will be up for grabs, though, because that might jeopardise his effort to convince the electorate that the Liberals IR policy is "softer" than the "Jobsback" policy which helped John Hewson to lose the last election.
The minimum conditions Reith has mentioned are a basic pay rate, four weeks' annual leave, two weeks' non-cumulative sick leave and 12 months' unpaid maternity leave, with the possible addition of cumulative sick leave, family leave and a few others. Now the backing for the Tweed Heads deal makes it clear that even "guarantees" are a sham.
It is the idea that sick leave could be "cashed out" that has justifiably angered the ACTU, but what about the other award conditions to be cashed out? Analysis of the deal has revealed that for a first year operator, award entitlements worth $56.50 per week have been traded off for a pay rise of around $42.80.
The assistant national secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, Doug Cameron, labelled the agreement as consistent with "all the worst aspects of the Howard-Reith agenda". Cameron's observation is true, but the problem for Labor is that the Tweed Valley agreement might also be in line with an interpretation of its enterprise bargaining legislation — the IRC obviously thought so.
In applying the measure that in "overall" terms no worker should be worse off with an enterprise bargain than the award minimum, the chance remains open for employers to buy out award conditions and take back later the trade-off in wages. This erosion of award conditions over time is the reason business supports enterprise bargaining. The Liberals simply promise quicker results.