Undermining of working standards is well under way


The first comprehensive research study on how Australian working life is being transformed under Work Choices reveals that Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs — individual contracts) are eating away at workers' wages, conditions and job security.

The massive study of 8343 participants was released on October 2. Australia@Work: The Benchmark Report compares the results of the first survey, which was conducted in March 2006 — just before Work Choices came into effect on March 27 — with the situation now.

The project is running over five years, with Sydney University's Workplace Research Centre interviewing all the participants every year to build up a picture of how their working lives change over time.

Since the introduction of Work Choices, 15% of workers have changed employer, making it more likely that they will end up on AWAs. In many cases, when a worker changes jobs, the new job is offered on a "take the AWA or don't get the job" basis.

Of the 1.5 million workers who changed jobs in 2006 and 2007, 60% were hired under a different form of agreement, with 72% of these moving onto non-union arrangements such as AWAs, non-union agreements or common law contracts. Workers who changed jobs in the 12 months following the introduction of Work Choices were almost twice as likely to be covered by an AWA than those who stayed in the same job.

Although AWAs only comprise 6% of all agreements, there has been growth of 1.7% in the number of workers on AWAs since the implementation of Work Choices. One quarter of all current employees on AWAs were not on AWAs prior to Work Choices.

Those on the new AWAs are more likely to be young workers (36% of workers on AWAs are aged 16-24 years) and in low-skilled jobs (56%).

Of the 177,000 people who moved onto AWAs this year, 56% said there had been no negotiation over wages or conditions. Most employees on AWAs had their pay determined on a group basis by their employers.

Among the low skilled, the highest hourly rates go to those on collective agreements. Workers on AWAs earn an average of $106 a week less than those on collective agreements. Low skilled employees on AWAs earn only slightly more per hour than those on awards.

Lead researcher Dr Brigid van Wanrooy said that it was "Particularly striking ... that skill level seems to be clearly linked to bargaining power: whilst highly skilled workers fared best on individual common law contracts, low skilled workers did best when they were covered by a collective agreement".

Van Wanrooy added: "AWAs are being introduced for workers who are in no position to negotiate their pay and conditions. Low skilled employees on AWAs are earning some of the lowest wages, working the longest hours, and are more likely to want fewer hours of work."

Workplace relations minister Joe Hockey dismissed Australia@Work's conclusions, referring to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures that he claimed showed that workers on AWAs earn 9% more than those on collective agreements.

However, ABS assistant director of labour employee surveys Valerie Pearson contradicted Hockey. Pearson was reported in the Melbourne Age saying that this ABS survey "was conducted only six weeks post-WorkChoices. The only thing that would have been picked up in the survey was any AWAs negotiated in that six weeks." Australia@Work gathered data until July 2007.

Even that ABS survey showed that workers on collective agreements earned more per hour than those on AWAs. Workers on AWAs only earned slightly more over a week because they worked longer hours.

Another interesting finding in Australia@Work was that despite low levels of union density (20%), an extra 820,000 workers, or one in 10 employees, wish to become a union member. If potential union membership was fulfilled, union density would reach 30%. Initial analysis indicates that unions are achieving higher wages for their members.

The full report can be downloaded at