In May this year the Coalition released a 14 point plan supposedly to ‘improve’ the Fair Work laws. These laws, introduced by Labor, are so bad that they even violate International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions. They are some of the most anti- worker laws in the advanced world.
Even Kevin Rudd admitted in a speech today that “under Fair Work the rate of industrial disputes is around one third the rate in terms of days lost compared to under the Howard Government”. The legal restrictions under Fair Work reduce the ability of workers to fight for better wages and conditions. This has further contributed to the increasing gap between the rich and those who work for a living.
Make no mistake, the Coalition’s plans are not about rectifying any of the problems with the Fair Work laws. They are about shifting the balance even further in favour of employers. If implemented the 14 point plan would mean even more restrictions on unions and the winding back of workers rights.
Some people have been surprised that Abbott’s proposed changes do not go further. Despite the fact that Labor merely made cosmetic changes to the previous Work Choices laws introduced by John Howard, the Coalition at the time acted as if the world would end.
While it is true that the Coalition would probably like to go even further, they know that they risk provoking a backlash – as they did with Work Choices. It seems Abbott’s strategy is to make a few minor policy changes now and then if elected reveal the full extent of his plans under the guise of a Productivity Commission review.
That said even the minor adjustments proposed by the Coalition will be a backward step for workers. Therefore they must be vigorously opposed.
The Australian Council of Trade Union (ACTU) has highlighted Abbott’s plan to increase the use of ‘individual flexibility arrangements’. These provisions already exist under Labor’s Fair Work laws with some restrictions.
The Coalition’s plan is to remove these restrictions which would in effect allow individual contracts to become more prevalent. The aim of individual arrangements is to undermine worker’s collective bargaining power. As was seen under Work Choices individual arrangements lead to lower wages and conditions.
The Coalition claims they will use a ‘Better Off Overall Test’ to ensure that workers are not left worse off by these arrangements. It is presented as if workers have a choice but the reality is that often employees are bullied and told to either accept the changes or lose their job.
Another aspect of the Coalition’s plan includes further restrictions on union officials wanting to visit their members in workplaces. Already there are severe ‘right of entry’ restrictions. The Coalition plans to let bosses pick and choose where workers can speak to their union representatives.
In practice this will mean union officials being placed in a room where the boss can clearly see which workers are going to speak to the union. This form of intimidation is aimed at undermining union organisation at a workplace level.
In addition the Coalition has planned a number of further restrictions on industrial action. One of these is to give the Fair Work Commission the power to decide if a claim is “fair and reasonable” before approving an application for industrial action.
Under the Coalition’s plan “fair and reasonable” would mean that there is no adverse effect on productivity. In other words any union claim must boost the profits of the bosses! This is an outrageous suggestion and a recipe to further increase the gap between rich and poor.
The Coalition’s proposed changes are a backwards step but the solution is not to just accept the so-called ‘lesser evil’ option put forward by Labor. Both parties have proven in practice that they are representatives of businesses and not workers.
The trade union movement needs to stop promoting Labor as an alternative. Instead the ACTU should embark on an industrial campaign to win back the rights and conditions that have been taken away from workers by successive Labor and Coalition governments.
Side by side with action in workplaces and on the streets the union movement needs to develop a political alternative to the major parties. The movement needs its own political party that unashamedly represents workers interests.
By David Suter