On January 1st the Workplace Relations Act (WRA) came into effect and already employers are testing its perimeters and pressuring the government to go further. Reith has agreed that more de-regulation of working conditions needs to take place and has foreshadowed future changes to the Act. The only hope for workers to stop this onslaught is to fight. Mobil have used the legislation against sacked contract workers, (see separate article this issue), and in West Australia, Murdoch installed a firm of security thugs to stop union reps from coming onto the site.
Little hope of job creation
Against a backdrop of lower than expected profit increases in the past six months, business is hell-bent on extracting more profit from workers and the government is showing willingness to collude. The government’s justification is that more deregulation will stimulate job growth, yet in the last week, surveys of employers have shown there is little hope of job creation in the next year.
Coalition hatred of workers
The cloak of ‘representing the battler’ is dropped now that the government is into its term. Its hatred of workers is revealed with Reith criticising transport companies for agreeing to wage increases with workers, even when the agreements included productivity deals and followed guidelines set out in the WRA.
Already at least one quarter of all Australian workers work in unregulated, or minimally regulated jobs. The number of workers employed without award conditions is growing dramatically. The purpose of the WRA is to increase that number. It is designed to attack the sections of the workforce who have managed to hold on to most of their conditions and almost keep wage parity.
No matter what the rhetoric, individual and collective workplace agreements will have the effect of undermining working conditions. Nevertheless, a concerted campaign by unions against further amendments can be effective. It is clear that the role of the ACTU in condemning the militant actions at the Canberra rally, gave the cue to the Democrats to water down their opposition to the first round of the ‘reforms’. The government itself, although it acts tough, is afraid of the anger of the working class. It is up to us to make sure they face that anger.
Sack for asking why pay is short
Changes to unfair dismissal procedures which diminish access and compensation payments take away the most basic right any worker has – that of filing against an unfair dismissal. Workers now risk the sack for asking why their pay is short, or why their workload has increased, or for refusing to do anything at all, no matter how unreasonable.
The WRA favours workplace agreements over industry ones and negotiations which have no union presence and limits worker’s ability to use industrial muscle. Workers must invite unions onto a site, and unions can only represent workers who have signed the invitation. It has no-strike clauses, with large fines for contract periods and has made penalties against secondary boycotts larger and easier to get.
Downgrading of awards
Awards have been downgraded to sets of minimum conditions seen as safety-nets, rather than as statements of actual industry standards. The effect of this in the long run will be to undermine those standards. It will also boost income disparity, among workers, and those who are already disadvantaged will be more so. Equal pay for equal work, whilst still nominally included, has no longer any teeth with employers being able tonegotiate different rates with different groups of workers in the same enterprise, let alone across industries and occupations.
By Lynn Beaton
Originally published in the February 1997 edition of The Militant, the predecessor of The Socialist.