'Worse than WorkChoices' -- O’Farrell to slash public service wages

May 27, 2011
NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell.

The newly-elected Barry O’Farrell Coalition government in NSW has introduced a bill that gives it unprecedented power over pay and conditions for the state's 400,000 public servants —gutting the NSW Industrial Relations Commission’s (IRC) role.

The Industrial Relations Amendment (Public Sector Conditions of Employment) Bill 2011 amends the state industrial relations act to require the IRC to “give effect to aspects of government policy declared by the regulations relating to NSW public sector conditions of employment”.

Industrial relations minister Greg Pearce told parliament on May 24 that the policy was intended to cap annual wage rises at 2.5% a year in cases where they are not funded by trade-offs in working conditions.

He said the bill was meant to ensure the “wages policy or the government’s fiscal strategy is not rendered ineffective by decisions of the Industrial Relations Commission”.

The proposed 2.5% capped wage rises are less than the rate of inflation. This would mean a wage cut for NSW public sector workers.

The amendments will apply to claims already before the IRC — which include cases brought by the Public Service Association (PSA) and the Police Association. It will also apply to appeals to any matters already decided.

NSW public school teachers are scheduled to begin bargaining in December 2011.

One of the government’s proposed amendments explicitly requires the IRC to give effect to the government’s policy on conditions of employment for the public service when it makes or varies an award or order.

Pearce said that the “policy on conditions of employment” reference was “intended to be broad enough to enable all relevant elements of the public sector wages policy to be included in the declaration made under the regulations”.

This “may also refer to other relevant conditions of employment, such as increased leave entitlements or a new classification structure”.

He said the regulations “may declare particular aspects of government policy on public sector conditions of employment, or they may adopt an existing policy set out in a relevant document”.

Under subsection (3) of the proposed section 146C, any award or order that is inconsistent with the government's declared wages policy will have no effect.

Pearce said that the government was “mindful of concerns about the independence of the judiciary”, and the legislation did not apply to the NSW industrial court.

Public sector employees are defined in the bill to include public servants, teachers, police, and health services employees. Pearce said the new requirements “clearly” wouldn’t apply to local government employers and employees.

Pearce told parliament that each 1% rise in public sector wages permanently raised government expenses by about $277 million a year.

He said the former Labor government had introduced the 2.5% cap on unfunded public sector payrises but had failed to implement it, leading to a wages “blow-out”.

Justifying his move to take the public sector wage-setting power away from the IRC, Pearce maintained the tribunal had rejected key aspects of the former government’s wages policy on a number of occasions, and it was “not a good outcome for NSW when government wages policy is disregarded”.

Opposition Leader John Robertson, formerly the secretary of Unions NSW, said the bill was “worse than Work Choices” and would give “unprecedented powers to the O'Farrell government to slash wages and conditions for nurses, teachers and police”.

He claimed: “Every single condition of employment is now at risk, including wages, penalty rates, nurse ratios, shift allowances, sick leave, long service leave and maternity leave.”

Unions NSW secretary Mark Lennon told the government to expect a campaign against the changes.

“The government has a right, as an employer, to go and argue their case for wages and conditions that they think are fair for their employees,” he said on May 25.

“But ultimately the decision has to be made by the independent umpire, and that's the right that will be removed as a consequence of this legislation.”

Greens NSW MP David Shoebridge said the powers the bill would give government were “frightening”.

The PSA also condemned the legislation, saying it would remove the union’s right to bargain for wages and conditions for its members.

It said: “The PSA will campaign across its entire membership base to oppose this legislation which will adversely affect the lives of more than 300,000 NSW public sector workers and their families.

“The campaign will commence immediately and will involve all PSA structural units including workplace groups, branches and departmental committees, and will continue until wage justice is achieved.”

The Police Association described the bill as a “betrayal of every police officer in NSW”. and said it would give the new government powers to cut “pay scales that reward experience; special rates for detectives; protections for injured police officers; provision of uniforms; and annual and long service leave”.

On May 25, O'Farrell said the changes were “minor”, and said the only difference between his government's and Labor's 2.5% curb on unfunded pay rises was that he was going to make sure the policy was carried out.

He said NSW public servants had on average won wage increases of 4% a year since 2007, but only 54% of productivity offsets had been delivered.

The Coalition is still to prove a “budget black hole” actually exists, especially during a mining boom. Of course there is no “budget black hole”, only the desire to further drive down the wages and conditions of public sector workers and make cuts to badly needed public services.

On May 26, the PSA announced it would place a ban on overtime in response to the attacks.

But unfortunately, instead of organising a coordinated public sector-wide campaign that coordinates industrial action and mobilises public sector workers and the community against the attacks, Unions NSW is focusing on an online campaign where public sector workers are asked to email members of parliament.

NSW public sector workers need to demand their union leaders organise cross-union mobilisations against these attacks. Only united action will defeat them.

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