Who can afford to give back $8000 a year?


Graham Matthews, Sydney

Workers employed at the Esselte stationary warehouse in Sydney's south-west suburb of Minto have been "offered" individual contracts (AWAs) that would give them a pay rise of $47, but cut 18 allowances they currently enjoy, chop the monthly rostered day off and stretch the normal work day, allowing the 38-hour week to be averaged over an entire year. The AWA also reduces shift penalties and overtime loadings.

"If you don't have penalty rates for weekends and overtime, it also rules out the right of the employee to say that no, they don't work overtime, because overtime no longer exists", Derek Belan, NSW secretary of the National Union of Workers (NUW), which covers the Esselte workers, told Green Left Weekly.

Esselte has refused to negotiate a collective agreement with its employees after their enterprise agreement expired four days after the Howard government's Work Choices laws came into force on March 27.

"Esselte has tried a new tactic", Belan said. "It's no longer offering AWAs to its employees who won't accept them. It's got a new set of workers in and is offering AWAs to them. Esselte has decided to get new casuals in, and pay them less, so as to get its older, longer-term workers to feel more vulnerable. This is what Howard wanted, isn't it?"

NUW organiser Mark Cochrane is being investigated by the Office of Workplace Relations (OWR) for allegedly applying "duress" to the Esselte workers — for explaining to them at a lunchtime meeting that the AWAs they had been offered would cut their pay by $50 a week.

"We're not going to be intimidated by government goons", Belan said. "I think their larger intention was to get the workers to sign AWAs." He said that "the boss put the workers in a car, drove them down to the Campbelltown art gallery, where two government goons from the OWR questioned them about the behaviour of our official.

"They told the workers that they didn't have to answer any questions, but if they didn't they'd be subpoenaed to court."

Belan explained that the campaign against AWAs at Esselte was continuing. The union had been notified of the beginning of a bargaining period at the warehouse and was planning to make an application to take industrial action in pursuit of a collective agreement for its members.

From Green Left Weekly, July 5, 2006.
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