Work Choices II: Howard's real agenda


In a striking piece of political theatre, on November 5 federal workplace ogre Joe Hockey promised to resign from a re-elected Howard ministry if the government changed Work Choices (significantly). "They can run all the scare campaigns they want", Hockey said, "but the bottom line is if we are making any substantial changes to our laws, then I will resign."

It's an open secret that the Howard government does intend to further de-unionise and deregulate the labour market. Speaking to the extreme right wing H.R. Nichols Society in early March 2006 — before Work Choices even came into effect — finance minister Nick Minchin apologised that the laws did not go far enough and promised that the Coalition would "seek a mandate" at the next federal election to go further — including the complete dismantling of awards and the Australian Industrial Relations Commission.

Unsurprisingly, in his debate with Labor IR spokesperson Julia Gillard at the National Press Club on November 7, Hockey steered clear of these issues. He promised 52 weeks of unpaid leave for each parent on the birth of a child (a right that already exists) and that workers would be able to take double holidays if the Coalition was re-elected, but only at half pay and only with the agreement of the boss. Grandparents would be able take up to 52 weeks off (unpaid, of course) on the birth of a grandchild — but only if their workplace has 100 or more workers. Hockey also announced further restrictions on union officials' right of entry, which Labor will probably also adopt.

"Fairness test"

The introduction of Work Choices caused a wave of loathing to spread across Australian society as workers found they could lose "protected conditions" — penalty rates, shift loadings, overtime and public holidays — at the stroke of a pen. Not to mention that they could also now be sacked on a whim, either because their workplace employed fewer than 100 people, or for "operational reasons" if their workplace was large. With Work Choices on the nose, the government was forced to introduce a "fairness test" in May (similar to the "no disadvantage" test that Work Choices legislation initially scrapped), which forced employers to provide "fair" compensation in any individual or collective agreement where "protected conditions" were cut.

By introducing the "fairness test", the Coalition has become a victim of its own rhetoric. Companies that previously championed Work Choices, such as the notorious Spotlight — which had offered new employees AWAs (individual contracts) that stripped overtime, public holidays and other conditions for an extra two cents an hour — have publicly despaired of the impact of the "fairness test" on what was otherwise a sweet method of cutting labour costs to the bone. Faced with the rejection of over 400 of their AWAs by the Workplace Authority, Spotlight abandoned the system on September 18 and announced its intention to negotiate a union collective agreement instead.

Peter Hendy, CEO of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI), and usually a leader of the Coalition cheer squad, also disparaged the "fairness test" when it was introduced. "There's no systemic abuse of AWAs occurring", he fibbed to ABC Radio's AM on May 4. "The government is obviously reacting to unease in the community that's caused by the ACTU [Australian Council of Trade Unions] scare campaign. But that scare campaign is based on misleading information, on demonising AWAs." Hendy went on to bewail the "inflexibility" that the fairness test introduced.

The "fairness test" was a concession introduced by the Coalition in an attempt to neutralise Work Choices as an election issue. While not making AWAs "fair" it has nevertheless slowed the Coalition's IR bulldozer somewhat. Should the Coalition win the election, does anybody really expect it to survive?

Award simplification

Big business is not yet satisfied with the level of "reform" to the IR system delivered by the Coalition. They are keen to see the award safety net dismantled. The Howard government established the Award Review Taskforce (AWT) to review industrial awards with the aim of further "rationalisation" (slashing of wages and conditions) on October 27, 2005. In November 2006, the taskforce released its report, which (unsurprisingly) recommended the "rationalisation" of awards and their reduction from more than 4000 to between 100-150.

The Howard government accepted most of the reforms suggested, including that awards be "simplified" and redrawn on an industry-wide basis. A key feature of the AWT report was that awards should only be seen as a safety net, reflecting the very minimum standards, and that they be restructured in such a way as that they "do not act as a disincentive to bargaining at the workplace level". The formal government response to the report insisted that award simplification "balances as far as possible the overall distribution of costs and benefits of rationalisation between employers and employees". In other words, the government supports award rationalisation as long as it cuts conditions and lowers wages, but not the reverse.

Award simplification will only begin on an application of the minister for workplace relations to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC). Such an application has not yet been made by the Howard government for any industry. This second stage of Work Choices — formally already part of legislation, but not yet actioned — is waiting for a Coalition victory on November 24 before it takes effect. Will an ALP government, if elected, reverse this process? Don't hold your breath.

The ACTU has said that both the ACCI and the Australian Business Council want awards eliminated completely and replaced with a single minimum wage and set of six minimum conditions for all industries. "This would cut the minimum award wage for a tradesperson by $150 a week", ACTU president Sharan Burrow said on November 1.

Unfair laws

The introduction of Work Choices gutted unfair dismissal provisions. The provisions were abolished completely for workers in companies employing fewer than 100 people. For those in larger companies, all the boss has to do to avoid the laws is to claim that the sacking was for "operational reasons" and the AIRC cannot investigate it further. Nevertheless, PM-in-waiting Peter Costello went on record in July 2005 saying that he supported the complete abolition of the unfair dismissal legislation. Costello, a former industrial lawyer for rampaging bosses, has never repudiated his statement. It remains in the government's arsenal, waiting for a further election victory to be unleashed.

Work Choices has paid-off big for business in its first year-and-a-half of operation. ACTU analysis shows that more than a million low paid workers have lost up to $15.67 a week because the increases in the minimum wage offered by the (un)Fair Pay Commission have failed to keep up with inflation. In addition, workers on AWAs have been shown to be $106 a week worse off than those on collective agreements, according to Australia@Work: The Benchmark Report, prepared by the University of Sydney's Workplace Research Centre. How much will this disparity increase should the Coalition government be returned?

Billionaire Gerry Harvey (of Harvey Norman) has also said that the Liberal Party agrees with his challenge to bring in a second tier of guest workers to fill skill shortages, paid at 50% the rate applicable under awards. "Guest" workers employed under the government's 457 visa scheme are supposed to be paid a minimum of $40,000 a year for skilled work only, although the system is open to wide-scale abuse. Harvey's proposal would legalise super-exploitation of migrant workers on a hitherto unseen scale.

Australian Building and Construction Commission

Perhaps the most vivid example of what Australian workers should expect from Work Choices II is provided by the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act and its bastard child, the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). The BCII severely restricts the rights of workers in the construction industry (and those industries that supply it). The ABCC has the power to interrogate any worker in secret and to compel them to answer any question — so much for the right to silence. Those that refuse may be subject to contempt proceedings, leading to jail for up to six months.

The ABCC has been established specifically to police the construction unions. However, should the Howard government be returned, it's no secret that they would like to extend the tyrannical reach of the ABCC to all industries, in their campaign to destroy the union movement once and for all.

Labor alternative?

Labor's promise to "tear-up" Work Choices is well known. Labor candidates repeat the claim at every opportunity. Yet the fact is that while Labor will abolish AWAs (but only by 2013), and promises to restore the unfair dismissal laws (in part), it will retain many of the worst aspects of Work Choices, including insisting on secret ballots before strikes, making industrial action outside of a bargaining period illegal and draconian restrictions on union officials' right of entry. Labor will even retain the ABCC until 2010, and then simply change its name.

Labor's "Work Choices lite" represents a pale imitation of the original, a marginal improvement at best. Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union WA state secretary Kevin Reynolds, himself a Labor member, spoke out against the party's IR policy on November 6. Asked by SBS what Labor had promised, he said that Labor leader Kevin Rudd and Gillard promised to abolish AWAs, the ABCC and increase union right of entry to work sites. "They've just back-flipped on every one of those conditions", Reynolds said. "Lies, deception and attacks on our senior officials", was all the union had received from Labor, he continued.

There can be no doubt that Hockey's promise to resign if IR changes are taken further by a re-elected Howard government is a fairy story. If polls are to be believed, it has done little to reassure voters about the Coalition's intentions. Nevertheless, the fact is, as Reynolds admits, Labor has no intention of reversing the changes made to date. If the experience of the Hawke-Keating government is any guide, they are likely to take "reform" even further.

While working people need to preference Labor ahead of the Coalition in this election, voting will not be enough. Whichever government is returned on November 24, it will continue to squeeze workers' wages, conditions and livelihood. The only defence for working people is a fighting union movement, one that is independent of both major parties, and that uses all means at its disposal to protect and extend working people's rights. Only such a responsive and militant union movement could really give content to the slogan "Your rights at work — worth fighting for".