Greg Combet: The Human Cost of the Howard Government's IR Laws

Greg Combet, ACTU Secretary, outlines the impact of the new IR laws and the union campaign ahead.
Speech by Greg Combet, Secretary ACTU, at Your Rights at Work Rally, 28 June, 2006, Roma Street Parklands, Brisbane Qld.

Can I say at the outset I want to thank Tom Barton, not only for those comments, but I want to thank Tom Barton as the IR Minister in the Queensland Labor Government and Id like to thank Peter Beattie the Queensland Premier and everyone in the Queensland Labor Government because they have worked with us from day one to fight against these laws.

And that's what the labour movements about when were confronted with a challenge like this, to join together, to unite and to fight, and fight is what were going to do.

I just want to take a minute to remind you what we are campaigning against - what these new IR laws involve. They give the employers the right to sack people indiscriminately.

That's right, and we have already seen, in three months, many many people sacked, whether its by text message for no reason, or people whove spent many years working for an employer giving loyal service, receiving commendations and thanks from time to time, but at the minute the laws came in, if there was someone cheaper that could be pulled in for the job, they got the flick.

No justice, and usually the condition of someone else coming in is that they come in on an individual contract at lower rates of pay. And thats the unfair dismissal laws were abolished. Big business didnt want that in their way any more. They wanted to be able to sack people indiscriminately so they could push down wages and conditions. We have seen some tragic examples of that already.

Some of them youre seeing on TV on our TV ads at the moment. What about the example of the Cowra workers? Sacked, offered their jobs back for $180-$200 a week less. And theyre not the only ones, theres been plenty more.

Minimum wages have been attacked too by these new IR laws. No longer can the ACTU and the unions, on behalf of working people, on behalf of 2,000,000 people who depend upon minimum award wages in this country no longer can we go into the Industrial Relations Commission each year and get them an increase so that at least their living standards keep up with inflation and hopefully they get a bit of a share of the economic prosperity around. But thats all over. What weve got instead is some new outfit, the Orwellian entitled Fair Pay Commission and we dont know precisely when its going to give anyone anything.

What we are seeing already is that people - 2,000,000 people around the country - are now on a wage freeze as a result of these new laws. These are people who work for $13-14-15 an hour. The only protection that theyve got is the minimum award rate of pay and they are having a wage freeze under these laws. What a disgrace.

Where is John Howard the so called battlers friend now? Hes imposing upon people a reduction in their living standards when petrol prices are going up, interest rates are going up, shopping bills are going up and the most vulnerable people in the community are being punished by the laws.

It's all on the basis of the most dodgy economic theory you would ever hear that if we make people that are struggling to make ends meet, we make life harder for them, push their living standards down, were going to create a job somewhere else.

Just last week, that ridiculous argument was debunked by the OECD which is the leading economic group of all the advanced economies around the world, [which] produced a report that blew John Howard's argument out of the water, and it says there is no relationship between employment growth and holding minimum wages down. We cannot draw that conclusion - and this ridiculous experiment on the basis of a ridiculous economic theory is going to leave millions of Australian people in a worse position. That's what were witnessing.

We've also got, of course, these AWAs. This is the preferred form of agreement making under the new laws for working people. Divide you up, refuse to collectively bargain, keep the union out of the way, force you to cop an AWA, an individual contract written by the employer, no negotiation, you cop it or you get lost. That's John Howard's position.

That's what he said. If you don't like it you can always look elsewhere. And what do we know about AWAs now? Three months since the laws came in, the Governments own survey figures tell the reality - Grace Grace gave them to you earlier, its worth repeating them - these are the Governments figures about the new individual contracts. 100% of them that have been made so far abolish at least one of the so called protected award conditions.

Sixteen per cent of them abolish every protected award condition 64% of them abolish annual leave loading 63% of them abolish penalty rates 52% of them get rid of any additional payment for working shift work 40% get rid of public holidays, and 22% of them contain no wage increase, and some of these agreements run for five years.

That's what these things involve. That's what the big business community wants to get Australian working people on, and that's what were fighting against. This is not what John Howard is trying to present. He says we are engaged in a scare campaign - some campaign about union power. That is rubbish. This campaign is about ordinary working families in this country to have decent rights at work. Faced with the demolition of his economic argument, John Howard's resorted to the absurd, the puerile and the inane to try and justify these laws.

What about the Spotlight case? A woman, Lynette Harris, who was confronted with an AWA under which she could have lost up to $90 a week. It would also have converted her to a casual and she might have lost everything if she had signed. But she had the courage to stand up against them and to take a stance in the public debate.

Now John Howard says that the Spotlight AWA offered to people in Coffs Harbour, an AWA abolishing penalty rates and cutting take-home pay, somehow created 38 jobs in Mt. Druitt in the western suburbs of Sydney.

Now that is a joke. What an embarrassment for the Prime Minister of this nation to stand up and say, because were ripping people off in Coffs Harbour and getting rid of their penalty rates, forcing their living standards down, were going to create some jobs in Mt. Druitt. This cannot be taken seriously.

And yet its all hes got left cut peoples pay for the greater good voodoo economics. They really cannot sustain this position. The laws also crack down upon union organisation as many of you are aware. In order to give employers the strong whip hand that they're looking for, theyre making it difficult for people to access information, advice and representation in the workplace from their union. They're making it difficult for union members.

They're allowing discrimination against union members and people who want to collectively bargain. They're denying a job to people who wont sign an AWA and that's discrimination on a massive scale - an outrageous breach of peoples democratic rights. All of these things add up to one of the biggest attacks, I think, on democratic rights in this country that we have seen.

If you're on an AWA, an individual contract, you don't have a say. And having a say at work is one of the most important elements of a democracy. And having the right to join together with your colleagues to negotiate on a collective basis with the employer is an internationally respected human right. And it is so because it is a democratic value that we hold.

At the core of it, that's what were on about. Were on about democratic values. Ordinary working people having a say in their own lives, in their own workplace. Were on about decent rights at work, and we will not be intimidated by these laws.

And I invite you, as I've invited many others during the course of this campaign, to not be intimidated. To stand up. To say were not going to go down the US road in this country. We are Australian people. We are proud and we are going to fight for our rights. Let me say a couple of things about the business community.

This argument that this is about union power is complete rubbish. What this is about is the power of the business community. And they have inordinate power. They have got too much influence over this government.

We have down the front of the rally, unfortunately you cant see them, some of the faceless men of the Business Council of Australia. Big business has worked hand in glove with the government on this issue and it is not a surprise to anyone that the leading business advocate in this public debate is a man known as Peter Hendy from the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and do you know who he is? He was Peter Reith's Chief of Staff. A Liberal Party apparatchik who's been placed into the ACCI to run the business case. He was there and were supposed to believe that hes a commentator for the business community.

I know a lot of business people through my work and a lot of them don't support these laws, and people in the community should not be conned by the leadership of the business community you see on the TV or hear on the radio.

I think throughout the Australian community there is a strong and common set of values that respect working people, that respect democratic rights, that understand and support a guarantee of fairness for people when they go to work.

That understand that you should have the right to attend a health and safety training course run by a union if that's what you want to do, but these laws make it illegal. That understand that you should have a guarantee of fair treatment, but these laws make it illegal.

We've got to do a lot of things in the course of this campaign, but one of the things well be discussing at the ACTU Executive in a couple of weeks is how we step it up. How we step up the fight. And one of the things that well be looking at and that we want to then have debated throughout our membership and with other workers and members of the community is a concerted effort to make sure that everywhere we go in every workplace we seek from employers a guarantee that people will be treated fairly. And I don't care if the laws make that illegal. We are going to stand up for what we believe in.

And we will be flexible about it, we will be responsible about it. We will approach it in a reasonable way, but I'm never going to be intimidated, and I don't think any of us will be, by a government and by laws that make us pay up to a $33,000 fine, just for asking that someone be treated fairly. Were not going to do it.

Ahead of us we've got a lot of important things to do and we all have an important role to play. Union officials alone, politicians alone, members of the community alone are not going to achieve anything, but together we can achieve a lot. Just think about some of the troubles we've been involved in in recent years.

I mentioned the waterfront dispute a while ago, it was eight years ago, but I remember it clearly. It was pretty hard work. And we had a lot of odds stacked against us but with the support of all of you and people right around the country we were able to win that dispute.

We said MUA here to stay, and they're still here. And we've been in many other struggles in recent years too, but none more important than this. And its a fight for workers rights that starts in the workplace. That is our foundation stone. We must join together and stick together.

Build the level of union membership in the workplace and in the industry. Join together with other people in the community outside the workplace, but make sure that we continue to build our industrial strength on the job, it is the foundation stone of any successful campaign.

All of you here can help play a role in that. Talk to people on the job about these industrial relations laws. Go onto the website and contact the union. Get the information you need to arm yourself, to have the debate in the workplace and win peoples support. Build the level of membership, attend delegates education courses or education courses on the new laws.

Join the campaign on our website at rightsatwork.com.au and get all the information and advice that can be of assistance to you, but build our workplace organisation during the course of this campaign.

Without it people will be vulnerable to individual contracts and we will be in a weak position to protect pay and employment conditions. But with organisation and good healthy membership, we will be strong and that is the starting point. But at the end of the day this campaign is also a political campaign. I don't care if John Howard is the one to repeal the laws, but I don't think hes likely to do it, do you? We need to campaign hard on the political level too. We need to be up there with our TV advertising campaign all the way through to the next election next year. Its been done with your support.

Its been able to be done so far with the support of 2,000,000 union members making contributions to put those ads up there and the financial support from many other throughout the community. We need to continue our financial support to continue that advertising campaign.

If there is anyone in the community who is asking how can I contribute, ask them to contribute financially to the campaign. Its so important to take our message out to every living room, to every lounge room, every kitchen, wherever people have got their TVs to take our message out about how these laws are affecting people.

And what about the courage of the people who have stood up and who are on our TV ads? To me that's one of the most courageous things someone could do. To put themselves up there on the telly all around the country . I have nothing but the highest regard [for them]. And if any person who's done that on all of our behalves suffers some form of discrimination or penalty, I want to be confident, and I'm sure they need to know that they've got your support. Is it forthcoming? (the noise indicates yes)

From here too we have to get strategic and practical about our political campaigning in marginal seats. Queensland is a very important state in terms of the next federal election. Many say the federal election will be won and lost here.

It will depend a lot on the level of votes that switch from the conservative parties in protest against these IR laws and we need your help and support to make sure that the marginal seat campaigning is successful. The Queensland Council of Unions and each of your own unions have been actively organising marginal seat campaign activities in Queensland in recent months. And pretty soon, were ready to get going and were going to need people to help us out.

And large numbers of people for the doorknocking, the shopping centres, the talking to politicians, the lobbying, people to play a role in organizing committees to conduct community meetings, to talk to people about the laws and get them when they go into the ballot box at the next federal election, to have the industrial relations laws in the front of their minds.

And to make sure that it influences their vote. That they stand up for their democratic values, for fair treatment and their rights at work and we need your help with that.

Finally I want to make a couple of remarks about Kim Beazley, the Federal Labor Leader. I know him well. I've known him for a long time, and I'm a great supporter of his. And I've been a great supporter, despite all of the criticism that's been leveled at him over the years, because I know whats in his heart. He shares the values that I've been describing. He believes that people should have a guarantee of being treated fairly. He believes that people need to be treated with dignity. He knows that individual contracts rip people off.

He was in Western Australia when a conservative Liberal government brought in the same sort of legislation to punish Western Australian workers in the 1990s. And he saw people being ripped off, working for as little as $6 an hour. And those are the laws that the federal system is modeled on. And that's why he didn't need me or any union official telling him what to do about AWAs, I can tell you. Kim Beazley knows what individual contracts are about and that's why he said, they're going to go. And we need to support him for it.

And its time that this argument that you cant tell too much difference between the Liberals and Labor, that that argument was shoved in a box and buried in the ground. Are you seriously saying is someone who runs that argument seriously saying there's no real difference? There's a big difference on a range of fronts, and industrial relations will a key difference. And there will be a choice for people at the next federal election. They can choose workers rights or not. They can choose John Howard's system to take us down a US road, or you can stand up for Australian values and rights and work.

We've got to defeat that sort of cynicism that says there's no difference between the parties, and continue to raise the understanding of this issue in the lead up to the federal election, because the more that people understand about these laws, the more they will be opposed to them. We must continue to build a movement for change in this country.

The single biggest problem we have on the economic front now is nothing to do with industrial relations, it is the failure of the Howard government to invest in education, in training, in schools, in apprenticeships, in the TAFE system and in the universities. What a ridiculous position weve got now where were having to bring in apprentices from overseas and you've got unemployed young people sitting around who cant get an apprenticeship in TAFE.

That is a disgrace !! It was acknowledged by one of the leading business analyst organisations - BIS Shrapnel - just this week that individual contracts are not going to improve productivity, they're not going to create the jobs. Whats holding the economy back is the lack of investment in skills, and the labour movement will have a policy about that.

A policy to help Australian people get the skills that they need to compete in today's labour market and be successful and well be investing in education, well be focusing on health. We want to be looking after our aged citizens and improve the aged care system. We want to rebuild Medicare. We want to make sure people have got decent rights. Were not going to be treating people who are seeking refuge from despotic regimes with the disrespect that we see from this government.

There are very important values that this campaign is all about, and its wider than industrial relations, but industrial relations and rights at work is at its core. Stick with it. Stay strong. Always be optimistic. Fight hard. Work hard. But do it in a responsible and democratic and peaceful way.

If we continue to build our campaign and our movement for change, we are going to win. We will win. Well be having another major mobilisation in late November with a Sky Channel broadcast and unfortunately I probably wont be able to come up here for that, but I hope you'll see me on the screen anyway, and lets make it bigger and better and reach out to more people and keep building.

Because the workers united, will never be divided. Thank you once again for your support today. The message is get out there and work so that we do win. We must win. ends