Politics Opinion

Wren's week: WorkChoices 2.0, casual work and a Labor resurgence

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(Caricature by Bruce Keogh/keoghcartoons.com.au)

In his final column for 2020, John Wren says that the Coalition's harsh industrial relations agenda allows Labor to flex its muscles in opposition.

WAY BACK in March, many pundits warned that the Morrison Government would attempt to use the pandemic as cover to pass new legislation that would have a negative impact on most Australians while simultaneously benefiting its corporate donors and cronies.

It came to pass this week with Morrison and Attorney-General Christian Porter announcing a rejig of Australian industrial relations – effectively a re-boot of John Howard’s doomed WorkChoices legislation. Readers will recall Tony Abbott stating vociferously that WorkChoices was dead and buried. As a devout Catholic, Abbott also believes in resurrection – and so this week’s bill has come to pass.

Perhaps what is the most galling is that throughout the pandemic the unions, via the Australian Council of Trade Union’s (ACTU) Sally McManus, and Porter, have worked together productively to ensure the JobKeeper and increased JobSeeker payments were put in place, as well as other measures. The two traditional combatants worked together for the benefit of all Australians.

With Australia having effectively eliminated the virus and life returns to some semblance of normality (albeit without overseas travel, and inbound students and tourists), Porter has dumped that goodwill and reverted to form.

The pandemic has also exposed how damaging the so-called “gig economy” is to Australia’s prosperity and wellbeing. Even the term gig-economy itself is a euphemism for insecure, casual and often low-paid work. Casual work suits some employees, but they are in the minority. It is overwhelmingly beneficial to employers, not employees.

Businesses can employ and terminate employees largely at will and without penalty. They don’t need to keep track of sick and annual leave. The transient nature of the work means that many individuals have more than one casual job – they may be a security guard one evening, an Uber driver another and work in an aged care home on another.

In the same way that businesses diversify to mitigate risk, so too do casual employees.

The first people to feel the brunt of the pandemic were casual employees, particularly in hospitality. As venues locked down, their jobs disappeared. They moved on to JobSeeker or found other casual employment.

Victoria’s second wave was largely powered by casual workers – not deliberately, of course. The epicentres of transmission were in large distribution centres, abattoirs and of course federally-overseen aged-care facilities. It took one casually employed super-spreader to spread it to colleagues at one location, they would then work the next day at another location where it would be spread further and so on. It was a contact-tracing nightmare.

Interestingly, in Victoria’s state-run aged-care facilities, not a single case of COVID-19 was reported. These facilities do not use casual employees. They use trained and qualified permanent full- and part-time staff with mandated resident to nurse ratios. 

The growth of casual work has also had a negative impact on the lifestyles of many, particularly young people and women. I personally know many young people, some university graduates and some not, who have not been able to find permanent secure employment.

Without job security, they have not been able to get mortgages, settle down and establish families. Many are still living at home into their 30s. They want out but simply cannot afford to leave the nest. This then has a flow-on impact on their parents who may want to downsize and release equity in their larger homes for their retirement but cannot because it would leave their children without homes.

So why on earth would Porter and Morrison want to entrench casual work still further and, in some cases, actually cut casual wages and entitlements? 

It’s ideological. The Liberal Party is unashamedly pro-business. It acts only to benefit its corporate donors and cronies. Traditional businesses operate to make a profit – a return on investment for their shareholders. If businesses naturally had a pro-community and pro-environment agenda there would be no need for environmental protection legislation or legislation that protects workers’ rights and conditions.

The fact that the Coalition constantly seeks to reduce these protections demonstrates their pro-business agenda. They seek unfettered capitalism in the erroneous belief that everyone will benefit. One needs only look across the Pacific to the American economic basket-case, with its massive disparities between rich and poor; a pandemic running out of control; lack of political leadership; and poor healthcare to see what a disaster pure capitalism can be. And the U.S. is not yet in a state unfettered capitalism.

John Howard’s WorkChoices ended his debased Government and cost him his seat. It gave unions, the Labor Party and ordinary Australians a very solid reason not to vote for the Liberal Party. It saw the Rudd Labor government elected in a landslide, just in time for the Global Financial Crisis. Fortunately, Labor was in power and able to deal with it effectively, but that’s another story.

The pandemic has seen opposition parties largely sidelined across the world. People want action and generally want their governments to succeed. This means oppositions need to work with and support the government or risk being seen as endangering public health (this is the mistake the Victorian Liberals made by politicising the pandemic). Unfortunately, that also means that oppositions become invisible.

Porter and Morrison’s WorkChoices 2.0 is just the shot in the arm that Anthony Albanese and Australian Labor need to revive their flagging electoral fortunes. It is a rallying point on Labor’s home ground: protecting the pay and condition of Australians. It will also bring the unions and the Labor Party together, and when the two unite in a cause, they have repeatedly shown they are unbeatable.

There is now a clear marketable distinction between Labor and the Morrison regime.

Labor seeks to ensure workers are paid a fair wage for a fair day’s work, with job security and good safe conditions. The Liberals are seeking to reduce wages, conditions and job security. It’s a no brainer and a real strategic mistake by the Coalition.

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