Fairness at work is a concept which is rapidly losing currency and there is a dire need for us all to do something about it, says ACTU Assistant Secretary, Richard Marles.

Fairness at work in Australia is being destroyed by the John Howard Government. Indeed John Howard’s vision for the economic prosperity of Australia is far more based upon exploitation at work rather than dignity at work.

The Australian Election

And so I stand here today in the hope that we may be into the last weeks of John Howard’s Government. Although, the prospects for that were far better six weeks ago than they are today.

Of course what happened to change things was the refugee crisis at Christmas Island which has to be one of the saddest and most disturbing episodes in Australian political history.

The differing attitudes of the New Zealand and Australian Governments could not have been more stark. Whatever the rhetoric that has been used to explain John Howard’s conduct, make no mistake that this is a 100% pitch to the racist vote.

I don’t actually believe that any individual is wholly racist. I think that racism exists to a greater or lesser extent in a lot of people. But whilst racism is perhaps the worst aspect of human nature I like to think that racism is a curable disease. But when you have a Government that incites it, that inflames it, that invites its citizens to feel the racism inside of them, that encourages people to get in touch with the racist side of their nature, in the hope that racism will motivate some people to change their vote on election day; well then you have a Government which has altogether lost sight of the national interest and is only acting in pursuit if its own self interest.

But I do not want to be all doom and gloom about the election. Kim Beazley is a great leader. His approach to the refugee crisis has been very different in both its terms and its motivation. Labor is still in the hunt. And if the issues which set Kim Beazley apart from John Howard can get an airing between now and the election then I think that you will see Kim Beazley come back in the polls and be competitive on November 10.


One issue in this election, which needs to be better understood by the Australian people, is Ansett. Because the Australian Government has been very culpable in the events leading up to the grounding of Ansett.

A few months ago Singapore Airlines came to Australia with a rescue package for Ansett which would have seen Singapore Airlines take a greater equity share in the airline. They were effectively snubbed by the Australian Government because it said that it did not want to see foreign domination of Australian skies. Strictly speaking however, foreign domination was surely not the problem, for Ansett is 100% owned by Air New Zealand and Qantas is 25% owned by British Airways. Why should an Asian carrier be treated any differently?

And in the days leading up to the grounding of Ansett the Government was not motivated by a desire to save Ansett nor do I actually believe they were motivated by a desire to ground Ansett. I think they were keenly motivated by a desire to ensure that the issue of Ansett did not have any traction with voters on Election Day. And so their strategy was to deliver to Ansett a quick and rapid death in the hope that Ansett would have been forgotten by the public mind come November 10. Behind the scenes the Federal Government acted accordingly. Again a Government with no sense of the national interest – a Government with a finely attuned sense of its own self interest.

At the time of the grounding of Ansett, Ansett workers and unions were very angry with Air New Zealand. This anger was perhaps poorly expressed and little enthusiastic. If offence was taken by New Zealand unionists I apologize.

The anger was meant to be expressed at Air New Zealand management not Air New Zealand workers and unions. The role that has been played by Air New Zealand workers and unions and indeed the New Zealand Government in the resurrection of Ansett has been nothing but positive. On behalf of the Australian Union Movement I give you our heartfelt thanks for what you have done. And we stand in solidarity with the Air New Zealand workers who face troubled times ahead in that airline. What has happened to work and workers at both Ansett and Air New Zealand is something which certainly is not fair.

Work in Australia is Unfair

So fairness at work is a concept which is rapidly losing currency and there is a dire need for us all to do something about it.

Australia is now the second longest working hours country in the developed world. Only workers in Korea work longer hours than workers in Australia. And while working time in Korea is on the decline, in Australia it is on the increase. Excessive working hours and the negative effects which go with it: an increase in family discord, a decrease in parenting, and increase in alcohol and cigarette consumption – in heart disease, a decrease in fertility, an increase in mental illness, to mention but a few of the effects; all of these are starting to characterize Australian society in international terms. It is what the world is starting to know us for.

At the same time the wage profit share – that part of the national income and wealth which goes to wages as opposed to profits – is at historic lows. Australia used to have the best wage equity in the OECD. Now our only claim to fame is that the gap between rich and poor is growing faster in Australia than in any other market economy.

More than a third of Australians are engaged in atypical employment: casual employment, part-time employment, employment through labour hire firms, employment as independent contractors. This is one of the highest figures in the OECD. So job security is a notion which is fast being consigned to the history books.

Couple all this with the worst set of industrial laws on the planet and you can see that things are not all that flash on the West Island.

Work in New Zealand is Unfair

Unfortunately while not being quite as bad, things in New Zealand are not that great either.

The evidence seems to suggest that working time in New Zealand is only marginally less than in Australia. New Zealand too has the ignominy of being high on the international working hours table.

The wage profit share in New Zealand is also at very low levels.

And the rate of atypical employment in New Zealand is again only marginally less than that of Australia.

Working longer for less money with no security is how work is now characterized in Australia and New Zealand.

Work is no longer fair.

ACTU Campaigns

And so in an attempt to do something about this the ACTU has launched major campaigns in each of these three areas.

The Reasonable Hours Test Case will be the most significant industrial test case in Australia in more than a decade. It is the first time the Australian Industrial Relations Commission has been asked to review working time in 54 years. Already the case has produced an extensive body of work detailing the nature and effect of working time in Australia. If we are successful in establishing as a legal standard that “An employer may not require an employee to work unreasonable hours of work” then we will not have changed the world but we will have started the process of civilizing the workplace in relation to working time and redressing the balance between work and family life.

Since 1996 the ACTU has run five Living Wage Cases and we are in the process of running our sixth. These have had the effect of increasing the basic wage by $64 per week or 18%. We will continue to run Living Wage Cases in the belief that increasing the basic wage will also drive greater wage equity through enterprise bargaining. But if we are really to do something about the wage profit share then we need to have greater increases in the basic wage. The Australian Government has a key role to play in those cases . . . a role that it is currently not playing.

And in the last twelve months there have been another two important cases. The first provides that a casual employee with more than twelve months service may elect to become a permanent employee. The second provides that a casual employee with six months service has the right to access parental leave. These are great achievements and will hopefully inject some job security back into the workplace.

Organizing for Change

But as important as all these cases are their greatest significance is that they provide a focus around which people can organize. Organizing union workers around these issues so that they start to form part of the ebb and flow of daily life in the workplace on the shop floor. And amongst non-unionists so that they can see that through the union they can civilize their workplaces . . . that through the union they can achieve fairness at work.

So for the first time the ACTU has married an organizing campaign to each of these cases: where specific unions are encouraged to campaign about these specific issues in the workplace. And where they are successful both in terms of outcomes and in terms of increasing union membership then these campaigns are showcased as an example to the rest of the Australian Union Movement of what can be achieved.

The Journey

These are just the first steps down a path that we must tread. But if Australia is to once again become the egalitarian, compassionate, and friendly society of which we were once so proud then this is a journey that we simply have to take.

The issues are similar for you here in New Zealand. And so I wish you well with your campaign for fairness at work and for work and family balance. We will watch your campaign with great interest in the weeks, months and years to come as we travel this road together.

Thank you for having me.