Workchoices: It's back!

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(Image via @billshortenmp)

Tony Abbott has a clear choice, writes former Assistant Commissioner of Taxation, John Passant. He can rule out any attack on penalty rates or come clean and tell the workers who are paid Sunday penalty rates why he wants to cut their wages.

ONE OF the bosses’ best economic think tanks, working class, taxpayer-funded government agency, the Productivity Commission, has released its Workplace Relations Framework Draft Report.

It recommended (at page 25 of the overview)

‘that Sunday rates in the hospitality, entertainment, retailing, restaurants and cafes industries should be brought into line with Saturday rates.’

There are 4 million workers who work Saturday or Sunday. Contrary to popular stereotyping, many are not students but rather a mother or father giving up time with their kids to earn much need income to put food on the table for them.

Tony Abbott has a clear choice. He can rule out any attack on penalty rates or come clean and tell the hospitality, retail and other targeted workers who are paid Sunday penalty rates why he wants to cut their wages and steal the food from their tables.


Echoing the hated individual contracts in WorkChoices called Australian Workplace Agreements, but also recognising the massive opposition to those individual contracts, the Productivity Commission has suggested a compromise. At page 37 of the draft it says:

… the Productivity Commission is floating the option of a new type of statutory arrangement — the enterprise contract (figure 9).

This would permit employers to vary an award for entire classes of employees (level 1 retail employees, for example), or for a group of particular employees, without having to negotiate with each party individually or to form an enterprise agreement.

It would effectively amount to a collective individual flexibility arrangement, but with some further flexibility. Employers could offer it to all prospective employees as a condition of employment (resembling enterprise agreements, where new employees are covered by an existing agreement when they are hired). No employee ballot would be required for the adoption of an enterprise contract, nor would any employee group be involved in its preparation and agreement unless the employer wished this to be the case. As in enterprise agreements, employers and individual employees could still negotiate individual flexibility arrangements as carve outs from the enterprise contract if they mutually agreed.

Yes, giving the bosses the power to set the employment terms without "interference’" from unions should work well for employees. It would if adopted no doubt see a massive increase in wages and better conditions. [sarcasm alert]

Again, Abbott has a clear choice. He can reject the revival of AWAs in another guise or explain to those millions of workers who rejected this approach at the 2007 election why he wants to give the bosses the power to set and thus cut wages.

On the minimum wage, the Commission says at page 15 that:

‘given the highly adverse outcomes of unemployment for people’s wellbeing, whenever the economy is weakening (as appears to be the case now), there are grounds for the FWC [Fair Work Commission] to temporarily adopt a conservative approach to minimum wage setting.’ 

While this is couched in terms of employment and not being a real cut, the end result is undermining the minimum wage and with it the many award wages dependent on it.

Again, Abbott has a clear choice. He can reject cutting the minimum wage or explain to the millions dependent on it why their wages are not increasing enough from their already pitiful levels to match increased costs.

The draft report also wants to water down unfair dismissal protections. At page 28 it says:

  • Moderate and incremental reforms can address the current flaws, while leaving much of the existing legislation and its legitimate protections intact:
  • The Fair Work Act should be amended so that procedural errors alone are not sufficient to award compensation or restore employment in what would otherwise be regarded as a valid dismissal. Nevertheless, procedural errors by an employer should, at the discretion of the FWC, lead to either advice to the employer, or where serious or repeated, financial penalties.
  • There should be more upfront filters that focus on the merits of claims.
  • Somewhat higher lodgement fees may also assist in limiting the automatic recourse to the FWC, but these would likely have to be tailored to an employee’s income, and vary depending on whether conciliation or arbitration was being sought. The Productivity Commission is seeking more views on this.
  • To reduce some of the present inconsistencies, the governance of the FWC should be reformed along the lines discussed earlier.
  • The emphasis on reinstatement as the primary goal of the unfair dismissal provisions should be removed. Good legislation should not give primacy to a goal that is rarely achieved and not necessarily even in the interests of the parties involved.
  • The above reforms, complemented by further targeted provision of information and regulator engagement with small business, will deal with many of the current issues experienced by small businesses. Subject to implementation of these reforms, the Small Business Fair Dismissal Code should be removed. The basic premise of assisting small business to navigate the complexities of unfair dismissal legislation is reasonable, but the Code does not achieve that outcome and provides a false sense of security.

Abbott has a clear choice – reject easing the unfair dismissal laws or explain to workers why they can be sacked on the whim of a boss.

The Abbott government will not reject the attacks on penalty rates, the minimum wage slow down, relaxing the unfair dismissal laws or condemn individual contracts that will undermine pay rates for all workers. It will say it is just a draft; it is a report “to” government, not “from” government; it is really just fine tuning what is already there; in the national interest we should all work together to address significant challenges to the economy and jobs, etc., etc., etc.

What this all boils down to is making the working class pay for the crisis of profitability gathering pace in Australia.  If the ruling class get these changes through that will open the floodgates for the next set of attacks from the insatiable bosses.

The union movement will argue that is why we should all vote Labor, the same Labor Party which kept much of WorkChoices when it won the 2007 election and who are under the same pressure from the bosses to attack wages, conditions and jobs as the Liberals. Instead of such an anodyne union response, perhaps we should be talking about striking against WorkChoices Part Two.

This story was originally published on John's blog enpassant.com.au and has been republished with permission.

You can follow John on Twitter @JohnPassant.

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