Julia Gillard has caved in to business complaints about her workplace laws by announcing a review of the FairWork legislation. This comes after months of howling from business that the laws do not provide “flexibility” and have not allowed the gains in productivity the Labor government promised.
Labor responded by saying it would consider changes if business could provide evidence. So now it has given them an independent review to dredge up proof the laws do not give business what it wants.
Restaurant bosses quickly made it clear what business is demanding. They called for an exemption from paying workers penalty rates for work on weekends and public holidays and the scrapping of the “better off overall” test that ensures any changes to basic award conditions must leave workers with a better deal overall.
By “flexibility” business means flexibility for them to boost casualisation and call in workers whenever they want, and to scrap such “restrictive” nuisances as penalty rates and overtime bonuses.
In other words they want to bring back WorkChoices. Big business was never happy about the end of Howard and his frontal assault on workers. While Labor’s Fair Work laws left most of WorkChoices in place, business would still prefer to have the whole thing.
According to the employer lobby group the Business Council of Australia, Labor’s workplace laws have unleashed, “a rising number of disputes and unreasonable claims by some unions”. Yet Bureau of Statistics data shows that wages grew by just 3.6 per cent in the year to last September, almost exactly the level of inflation, 3.5 per cent.
The only area where wage gains have been substantially higher is in mining projects in WA—an industry in boom time that can afford to pay.
There was a small increase in strike days between April and September last year, to 214,400 working days for the year ending in September. But this is about the same as the level of the year ending September 2008, three years before when the same enterprise agreements were expiring. And, as labour law academic Graham Orr wrote, all of the increase in the last three months “is accounted for by public sector disputes in Victoria and New South Wales, the latter not under federal law.”
The WorkChoices anti-strike laws have been maintained completely—so the scope to take industrial action has not increased one bit.
Employers have been much more aggressive than unions over the last few months, launching lockouts at Qantas, stevedores POAGS and DP World and Schweppes.
The fact that it is the bosses shaping the public debate about Fair Work and getting what they want from the government—not the unions putting on any pressure—is an indication of how little the unions are doing to press their claims.
Abbott and IR
When Labor was riding high in the polls following their election win in 2007, business had to learn to live with a minor winding back of Howard’s laws. Now, in the aftermath of Labor’s backdown to business around the mining tax, they think they can lay down their demands.
This is aimed just as much at Tony Abbott as at Labor. The opinion polls point to the likelihood of a Liberal government following the next election. Yet Abbott has refused to outline his own political agenda, earning himself the nickname “Dr. No”, by preferring to simply focus on attacking Gillard. So far this has been a winning formula, with Labor stuck at record lows in the polls.
But it has business a little worried. As The Australian’s Paul Kelly points out, “his political success derives from a stunning economic populism”. In addition to his cynical campaign against the cost of living impacts of the carbon tax, Abbott has sought to distance himself from WorkChoices. At the last election he famously declared it “dead, buried and cremated”. In late September he pledged not to re-introduce statutory individual contacts. This drew fire from Liberal Party elder Peter Costello who warned the Coalition against reviving the “protection and regulation” approach of the Democratic Labor Party, the right-wing split from Labor in the 1950s.
Business is ramping up its demands because its need for ever-growing profits is insatiable. It has an eternal desire to undercut rivals overseas and maintain its “competitiveness” and profits. But this will come at the expense of the rest of us, through working us harder for less.
Whether under Labor or Liberal, unions will to need to fight to stop these attacks on wages and conditions.