Workers’ rights in government firing line

The Australian Hotels Association is among business groups eager to go after workers' penalty rates and conditions.

Workers in Australia are under an unprecedented and multi-fronted attack, designed to strip away hard-fought wages and conditions, including penalty rates and industrial rights. This attack is part of a drive by Australian capital to shore up profits in the context of a global economic slow down.

The federal government, on behalf of business interests, is using three simultaneous and overlapping processes to undermine workers’ rights and union organisation: the Productivity Commission Inquiry into Workplace Relations, the Review of Modern Awards and the Trade Union Royal Commission (TURC).

The government hopes to achieve its industrial relations agenda through administrative means while its suite of anti-worker legislation is held up in the Senate.

The Productivity Commission Inquiry Issues Papers reveal significant overlap with the government’s Fair Work Amendment legislation. This begs the question as to why the government bothered with a review when they have already determined the outcomes.

The review has, of course, been welcomed by employer groups, such as the Business Council of Australia. BCA Chief Executive Jennifer Westacott said: “We need to rethink how we work and how we stay competitive to succeed in a global economy. Part of this is looking at whether our workplace relations system is helping us or holding us back.”

The government’s four-year “Modern Awards” review is an opportunity for industry employer groups such as the Australian Hotels Association (AHA), the Australian Industry Group and business chambers to go after penalty rates in the fast food, retail, hairdressing, dry cleaning, laundry, pharmacy and hospitality industries — where some of the lowest-paid workers are concentrated.

“Award modernization” is a euphemistic term for the process of rationalisation of thousands of federal and state awards into 122 national industry awards. It started under the previous Labor government, after years of stripping away entitlements in those awards.

The Sydney Morning Herald said on February 22 that the AHA wants a reduction in the number of public holidays. It also wants a two-tiered system for public holidays that excludes workers from claiming higher penalty rates on events such as the Queen's Birthday, bank holidays and the eve of the AFL grand final. In its proposal to the Fair Work Commission review, the AHA also asked for a lower penalty rate to be set for public holidays introduced by the states.

Workers rely on penalty rates to form part of their take-home wages, due to low hourly pay rates and to the limited shifts available each week in the fast food, retail and entertainment industries. In New Zealand, the use by employers of “zero hour contracts” is rife in the fast food industry and spreading to other sectors. Workers must be available for work each week, but can be rostered on anywhere from three hours to 40 hours.

While employer groups bleat about the impact of penalty rates on their profitability and have minimum wages in their sights, the latest ABS Wages Price Index reveals that wages grew by just 2.5% last year. The Australian Council of Trade Unions says this is the slowest wages growth recorded in any 12-month period since the index was created 18 years ago.

These figures come at the same time as mining company BHP Billiton posting of a half-year profit of US$4.27 billion in December, despite a fall in the price of oil and iron ore, and Australia's largest grocery giant, Woolworths, posted its biggest ever profit of $2.45 billion.

The ABC also revealed on February 22 that thousands of workers are being underpaid wages or denied entitlements by their employers, according to figures it obtained about complaints to the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO).

The ABC report, more than $20 million was recovered by the FWO last year on behalf of employees. The industries that generated the most complaints were cafes, restaurants and pubs, followed closely by construction, the retail trade and service industries, such as contract cleaning.

Unions such as the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU) have been instrumental in chasing builders and contractors to recover millions in unpaid wages in the building industry for their members. The federal government’s $52 million Trade Union Royal Commission has been relentless in its pursuit of the CFMEU and other unions and has now been extended until the end of this year. On February 19, the Guardian revealed that Jeremy Stoljar SC, the lead lawyer for the Royal Commission could be paid more than $3.36 million for just under two years’ work at the inquiry.

It is vital that unions escalate the fight against the government’s anti worker agenda while its anti-worker legislation is held up in the Senate.

Some of the nasties awaiting workers include anti-union legislation to create the Registered Organisations Commission, an independent oversight body to “monitor the conduct” of unions and to reintroduce the dreaded Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). The Guardian said both bills were set to be debated this week but have now been deferred by the government as it seeks more time to lobby and win the crossbench votes.

Another anti-worker bill held up in the Senate is the misnamed Fair Entitlements Guarantee Amendment Bill, which will limit redundancy entitlements for workers under the scheme to 16 weeks.

Add to these the Fair Work Act Amendment (Bargaining Processes) Bill, which will require productivity gains (actually losses in entitlements) in any new agreement for it to be approved by the Fair Work Commission and which tightens requirements on unions seeking protected action ballots.

Finally, the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014, which will restrict union right-of-entry provisions, prevent the payout of annual leave on termination, expand the use and scope of Individual Flexibility Agreements, limit the conditions under which unions can ballot for protected action, and avoid employees’ rights to an unfair dismissal hearing in some cases.

The ruling class mythology that Australian workers are doing it too easy is further challenged by the results of the ACTU’s Our Living Standards, Our Voice survey of working people. The survey ran between November last year and January, and involved 43,188 people — both members of unions and non-members — from all states and territories and across all industries.

When it came to their income, 70% said they found it hard to get a decent pay rise, while 58% felt uncomfortable speaking up about their rights at work. Forty-eight percent of survey respondents said they were only coping on their current household income, while 28% found it difficult or very difficult to get by.

Before last year’s minimum wage case, the ACTU commissioned Essential Media to survey Australians on their perceptions about the minimum wage. The report found that around 60% were concerned about the emergence of a “working poor” and supported an increase in the minimum wage.

A third of those surveyed said they could not afford to live on the minimum wage (then $622.20 per week for a 38 hour week). By contrast, 82% said CEOs and executives were paid too much. In total, 62% of those surveyed supported an increase in the minimum wage.

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