A generation of neo-liberal attacks dressed up as reform or restructuring have created deep suspicion among many workers about anything that’s described as “streamlining” conditions.
And people are right to be cautious. Take the current round of award modernisation, which could lead to some workers losing $300 a week or hard-won conditions.
For most of the past century, awards have been the key legally enforceable agreement governing workers’ wages and conditions. Awards at federal or state level covered complete trades or industries, meaning plumbers on every site, or nurses in every hospital, were paid the same.
Awards gave workers common interests and a common basis for industrial action, which is an important reason why Labor under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating in the 1980s drove through a process of enterprise bargaining.
Awards were left intact as the underpinning agreement, but workers were pushed into agreements that could vary workplace by workplace. Where once, for example, all federal public servants were covered by the one award, a Tax worker and a Centrelink worker could now end up with quite different conditions.
In unionised and well-organised workplaces, the underlying award withered into insignificance as workers won improved enterprise agreements. But for workers in industries like hospitality, retail or human services, the award was still central.
That is why Workplace Minister Julia Gillard’s decision in March 2008 to instruct the Industrial Relations Commission—now Fair Work Australia (FWA)—to create just 130 modern, national awards was so disastrous.
Gillard promised that the new framework “is about making people better off and it will”. She added: “And I can give the guarantee that no worker from the Bill we have passed today into Australian law, will be worse off.”
Her promises have turned out to be totally hollow. In September, FWA revealed details of 49 new awards. The changes, along with others in the pipeline, are disastrous:
- Some airline industry employees may lose between $70 and $300 a week from their base pay.
- Offshore gas workers may lose their “two weeks on, two weeks off” roster, which allows them family life.
- Workers in the seafood and cemetery industries face a similar loss.
- Aged care nurses could lose up to $295 per week, particularly in NSW and Queensland.
- Timber workers’ rosters, annual leave, available holidays and shift standards are under threat.
- Pay cuts of up to 23 per cent are possible for apprentice electricians.
ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrence said unions would “vigorously pursue legal and bargaining actions to safeguard and improve the pay and conditions of workers who are adversely affected by this decision”.
But as Victorian Trades Hall secretary Brian Boyd pointed out, the ACTU had only days earlier talked up the savings many employers would get from the new modern awards.
Awards are not the only hard-won rights at risk from Labor’s WorkChoices-Lite agenda. Labor is pushing a uniform, national occupational health and safety law, which will reduce workers’ rights to a lowest-common denominator, based on Victoria’s 2002 law.
In Victoria, workers now take shared responsibility for safe conditions in factories, shops, offices, farms and other places of work, taking the pressure off employers to provide safe workplaces.
The new, draft national law requires bosses to do everything that is “reasonably practicable” to make workplaces safe—a much weaker provision than current laws in NSW and Queensland, which carry an absolute duty of care and place the onus of proof on defendants, rather than prosecutors. Unlike in NSW, there will not be an opportunity for unions to launch prosecutions—a setback that industrial relations commentator Ken Phillips said would “cut to the heart of the power base of the union movement”.
While Labor’s Fair Work Act has tipped the balance back fractionally in unions’ favour, the situation is still grim. As Brian Boyd put it: “The award modernisation process; the Liberals and employer associations putting the possible return of AWAs out there for the 2010 federal election; and how some recent bargaining disputes highlight continuing difficulties for workers in achieving reasonable results collectively, illustrates this point clearly.”
The evidence continues to mount that Labor’s industrial laws are haunted by the Howard legacy. Only industrial action can exorcise that particular ghost.
By David Glanz