Work Choices or justice at work?

Issue 

Sue Bolton, Melbourne

Five religious leaders joined Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary Brian Boyd and ACTU assistant secretary Chris Walton on June 7 to voice their opposition to the Howard government's new Work Choices laws.

Reverend David Pargeter, the executive director of the Uniting Church Commission for Mission, declared: "We need a powerful alliance that names exploitation when we see it. Exploitation is as old as the relationship between power and labour. This new legislation has been drafted by the heartless pharaohs of our time. This legislation must be resisted and opposed. Hope on June 28 you will think of the future and join the protest."

Victorian Council of Churches general secretary Maureen Postma said: "Some in the churches are employees and some are employers. Some who are employers don't look after workers." However, she said that "churches are unhappy with the focus of the laws on the individual, as if the individual has to serve the economic unit rather than the other way around".

Melbourne City Mission executive director for community development Sally James said that the Howard government's "welfare reform isn't about helping people find jobs. It's about forcing you to accept low-paid jobs.

"If you have completed two rounds of intensive assistance, you'll be assessed to see if you're a genuine job-seeker and if they decide you're not, then you'll get full-time work for the dole. If you have your payments stopped for eight weeks, you'll get sent to case management to see which of your essential bills are essential enough to pay. Welfare to Work is all about ideology", she said.

James said that every dollar spent on investigating welfare fraud recovers less than $2. "All of our community sector organisations are compromised", said James, "because some of our government-funded programs are also compliance programs like work for the dole, while at the same time we advocate for people's rights. It's time for the community sector organisations to stand up and be counted and refuse to deliver compliance services."

Boyd said: "You couple Work Choices with Welfare to Work and with the tying of federal funding of the states to federal policy and you have the biggest challenge we've ever had."

He described two examples of gross exploitation of young people under the Work Choices regime. One example was of 14- and 15-year-old workers who have been hired by contractors for sporting events in Melbourne. They are paid on commission — 10% of what they sell. They have to have an Australian Business Number and have their own WorkCover scheme.

The second example involved an employer who supported Work Choices but whose young son was employed by a golf club to drive a golf cart picking up golf balls. There was a wire mesh to stop balls getting into the golf cart and hitting the person driving it. The wire mesh had holes in it and a ball nearly hit the boy in the head. After the boy told the manager that the wire mesh needed to be repaired, he was sacked.

Boyd said that PM John Howard had told a Liberal Party colleague last month that there was "unease" about Work Choices. "If Howard is only feeling unease, that means that we haven't hit him hard enough", said Boyd. "We need to increase the mobilisations. We can't just sit back and hope that the ALP wins the election in 2007. If we adopt that approach, then we will lose. We must allow people to get out on the streets to show their anger. If we mobilise and keep mobilising, then change will happen."

Other church leaders on the platform were Father Bruce Duncan from the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, and Anglicare Victoria CEO Ray Cleary.

From Green Left Weekly, June 14, 2006.
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