Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Howard promotes individual contracts

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Howard, not content with the flexibility bosses get from casualisation, is renewing his push for Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs), as the way to keep labour costs lower than ever. AWAs or individual contracts, attack collective agreements, the award system and protection mechanisms for employees. Ultimately, Howard?s AWAs are an attempt to strip away unions and the award system in one foul swoop.

Many Bosses on Brunswick street, and in other small business centres around Victoria are pressuring their staff to sign AWAs. As of January 1, 2005 employees will be entitled to penalty rates, as will all hospitality and retail workers. Due to the abolishing of state Awards in Victoria, all workers not covered by the federal Award will automatically fall under common law conditions which are effectively similar to the federal Awards.

This will include penalty rates, such as overtime rates for working long shifts, double time on a Sundays, and time and half on Saturdays, and penalty rates for working into the early hours of the morning or night shift.

This is long overdue for workers in industries like hospitality, who work unsociable hours without compensation, commonly work in unsafe conditions and work unpaid overtime.

For years, hospitality workers on low wages have been subsidising their employers. The hospitality industry employs a major proportion of young people – a highly vulnerable and often exploited work force. According to official ABS statistics the hospitality work force has unionisation rates as low as five percent and casualisation rates of 60 percent. UNITE suspects this rate is really much higher considering the high volume of cash in hand work in the industry.

UNITE is warning workers not to sign AWAs. If they sign they will be locked into a contract, which will see them miss out on the improvements. It is illegal to force an employee to sign, yet many employers are coercing their employees to do so.

AWAs are the only legal agreement that can actually lower wages and conditions. They are of course designed to put workers in a weak bargaining position. How would young workers be able to negotiate decent pay and conditions, without any support or protection mechanisms?

If this goes ahead, it will result in mass casualisation. It means businesses with less than 20 employees will be able to fire their staff without reason, notice or accountability.

The reality is that employees of small business operators will be even more vulnerable to discrimination, harassment and unsafe work conditions as they no longer will be protected by basic workplace laws. Even if workers have permanent status, they will be afraid to speak out and will face the same lack of job security as most casuals do now. If Howard and the big bosses get their way workers will have no protection at all.

Small business caper

Small businesses bosses often cry poor- “I cant afford to pay the minimum award/decent wages” or even refuse to put their workers “on the books”. They often justifiy paying poverty wages, arguing that as bosses, they are at least providing jobs!

Howard’s ‘reforms’ have been deliberately and heavily marketed to small business employers – industrial modules of AWAs, casualisation and unfair dismissal laws are packaged as support against the big monopolies. Basically, Howard is offering small business support, by way of promoting the reduction of labour costs. Once again ‘labour market flexibility’ is sold as the key to competing in the market. Workers meanwhile are finding it more and more difficult to make ends meet. This is evidenced by the huge rates of personal debt workers are facing.

The Brunswick Street business precinct is a typical example of what?s going on in ?small business? workplaces; difficult to organise, harassment behind closed doors, unsafe work conditions and workers less likely to speak out as they are easily identified in a small workplace.

While there are many genuine small businesses on Brunswick Street some are using their facade as ‘small’ to get away with crimes of exploitation. These businesses are often actually subsidiaries of large companies or even multi-national corporations. The real agenda of Howard?s attack on workers and labour laws, is to ensure that workers are weaker than ever and unable to fight back as big business comes sweeping in.

By Kylie McGregor


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