Uncovering the impact of Work Choices

Issue 

After comparing data from the Office of the Employment Advocate (OEA) on pre- and post-Work Choices agreements, Professor David Peetz from Griffith University revealed last December that 63% of Australian Workplace Agreements (individual contracts — AWAs) remove workers' entitlement to penalty rates, with these being "absorbed" into hourly rates of pay. As well, 64% of AWAs remove workers' annual-leave loading and 54% include no shift loadings.

The negative impact of AWAs on workers' take-home pay and conditions belies the federal government's claim that workers are no worse off under the Work Choices laws.

Peetz told the Women and Work Choices Roundtable in Brisbane in December that, contrary to OEA data, 82% of post-Work Choices AWAs had a serious impact on overtime payments, which for many workers increases their weekly earnings to a sustainable level. He added that 51% of AWAs exclude overtime entirely, while 31% "modified" overtime in some way.

Similarly, 73% of AWAs have changed public-holiday pay in some way, with 46% abolishing it entirely and another 27% modifying conditions.

Public scrutiny of AWAs under Work Choices has been severely hampered by the OEA's decision last November to cease analysing data on thousands of new workplace agreements registered with them.

An OEA survey of 250 agreements lodged under Work Choices last April found that all of them excluded protected award conditions, with 40% of them excluding rest breaks completely.

When OEA head Peter McIlwain appeared before a Senate estimates committee meeting last November to explain the reasons for his decision to shut down the OEA's analysis of AWAs, he cited concerns about "methodology" and the "potential to produce distorted and misleading responses" (read: the potential to reveal the negative impact of Work Choices on pay and conditions!).

Special Minister of State Eric Abetz, representing industrial relations minister Kevin Andrews at a May Senate estimates committee meeting, said statistics were like "skimpy bathers — what they show is interesting; what they hide is vital". Clearly, the Howard government would prefer a more "neck to knee" standard, revealing as little as possible about their anti-worker agenda.

More than 1 million AWAs have been registered since 1997, with a record 23,000 registered in the month of September, 2006.

The campaign against Work Choices must be fought concertedly, and must continue past the next federal election if workers are to reclaim their industrial rights.

The Howard government is attempting to cover its tracks in the hope that workers will just put up with declining incomes and conditions of work in isolation. Our strength is in our collective action and the success of the campaign depends on our ability to link up with other workers who are taking up the fight.

Limiting the fight against Work Choices to a pro-ALP electoral strategy is not enough. While all workers will be better off with the Howard government out of office, we cannot afford to accept "Work Choices lite" under an ALP government, and must keep up the pressure on the Australian Council of Trade Unions and union leaderships for continued mass action, including protest and coordinated industrial action.

[Susan Price is president of the University of NSW branch of the National Tertiary Education Union.]

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