Workers, wherever they are, will, like their forebears, fight to retain and enhance industrial rights and social guarantees says ACTU President Sharan Burrow.

When they jail a man for striking, it’s a rich man’s country yet”

That famous ending to the ballad celebrating the great shearers’ strike of the 1890’s says it all – workers rights, including the right to bargain collectively, are human rights.

In John Howard’s Australia today it is perhaps not jail that workers should fear but certainly fines, dismissal and discrimination.

The denial of fundamental human rights in the form of labour rights is the legacy of a legal and cultural industrial relations context carefully constructed by the Howard Government.

And it is not just about the right of workers to strike. The ability of Australian workers to stand up for their rights, call in the union to assist or say no to the imposition of individual contracts and choose to be covered by a collective agreement is also under serious threat.

The Howard government may purport to support human rights but it denies working Australians labour rights that comply with international standards. It is a government that has presided over the rapid growth of a working poor in Australia; deliberately diminished social guarantees including public health and education; in essence presided over an increasingly divided Australia that pretty much signifies the death of the egalitarian dream of the labour movement.

Furthermore it is a government that supports exclusion of labour and environmental standards from the trade agenda and promotes profits before people in its blinkered support of corporate globalisation. If globalisation without rules that protect people is working so well for everybody, why are Governments and companies in some countries still using guns, violence and imprisonment to stop workers from organising to negotiate a fair share for themselves and their families?

Why have we seen no action from Australia’s Foreign Minister Alexander Downer to promote sanctions on Burma despite the historic decision of the ILO to isolate this country for its continued use of forced labour.

We must note that 250 million children, some as young as five-years-old, are at work for up to 15 hours a day, seven days a week. Even in the OECD we see companies like, an archetypical new economy symbol, exposed for enforcing subsistence rates of pay in its factory outside London.

Why is it that from Poland to the Philippines, from South Africa to Fiji, collective organisations of workers – unions – are still struggling at the forefront of the fight for human rights, for democracy, freedom of speech, economic and social justice.

The right to associate, to organise and bargain collectively and the right to strike are critical to human freedom.

The sad indictment on our nation is that while we might expect international standards to be ignored by dictatorships, Australia, a wealthy democratic nation, is governed by a party that has chosen to thumb its nose at International Law and restrict the rights of working people.

It is not well understood that Australia is one of only a handful of countries, none other a developed democracy, where it is lawful for an employer to refuse to negotiate collectively with employees through their union, even if that’s what the employees want.

Beyond these fundamental issues of rights it is instructive take a time walk through the last century and look at key issues, labour achievements and 21st century parallels. I have chosen the following highlights:

  • Arbitration and Conciliation
  • The Minimum Wage
  • The Eight Hour Day, and
  • Equal Pay,


Arbitration & Conciliation

Australia has enjoyed a unique system of arbitration and conciliation. This system has represented the fundamental commitment by this nation to fair play. Often called the “independent umpire,” our polling shows that the Industrial Relations Commission enjoys the support of more than 80 per cent of Australians. In fact, 81 per cent of Australians support the right of collective bargaining – including 95 per cent of National Party supporters.

Following the first Court of Arbitration established in New South Wales in 1901, other States followed suit in setting up similar tribunals, with the new Commonwealth Government establishing the Arbitration Court in 1904 to deal with intra-state disputes.

Thus, since 1904, the operation conciliation and arbitration has seen Australian unions essentially agreeing to balance the need for autonomy and free bargaining with the ability to participate in the system.

Although over the decades unions and workers may have from time to time been concerned about the restraints put on them by the Commission – they rarely, if ever, chose deregistration, with its consequent lack of access to awards and arbitration to underpin decent outcomes for their members.

The Industrial Relations Reform Act 1993 was a watershed.

For the first time, Australian workers and their unions had access to free collective bargaining on an enterprise basis; that is, agreements could not be refused by the Commission because of concerns that they might flow on to other workers (the so-called “public interest” test).

Although prior to the Reform Act workers could bargain for over-award payments, these were generally not legally enforceable and industrial action taken in support of such claims was unlawful at common law and could also be subject to a bans clause being inserted into the relevant award.

The ability to bargain freely was accompanied by provision for the taking of industrial action that was “protected” from legal action under the common law or in relation to bans clauses and other statutory sanctions. This brought Australia into line with international standards but preserved the strengths of the arbitral system.

Following the election of the Howard Government in 1996 the legislation was amended to provide for new restrictions on the taking of industrial action; in particular, the replacement of bans clauses by section 127, supported by the ability of the Federal Court to grant injunctions. In addition, the secondary boycott provisions were restored to the Trade Practices Act.

The Government has, on several occasions, attempted to further amend the legislation to wind back the already inadequate right to strike, and hence the ability of workers to bargain effectively.

It is to the credit of the Democrats , the ALP and other non-government Senators that these attempts have not succeeded – and of course, to unionists and others who have campaigned so strongly against the Reith initiatives.

Although enterprise bargaining has had difficulties for many unions, not least in terms of the resources it requires, we do not expect or want Labor to turn back the clock.

The ACTU does, however, expect Labor to deliver on its commitment to abolish AWAs, make the law more balanced and to bring Australia into the international mainstream.

Labor has already indicated, through the Private Member’s Bill introduced last year by Kim Beazley, that in Government it would require employers to negotiate in good faith with employees and their unions and give the Commission the power to make orders pertaining to such. The Bill also sought to restore arbitral powers to the Commission – to restore the Commission’s ability to arbitrate any industrial matter in awards.

In addition, the Bill sought to broaden the circumstances in which the Commission can terminate a bargaining period and arbitrate the matters in dispute to include where the parties cannot reach agreement and it would be in the public interest to terminate the bargaining period. What is significant is that in 2001 we are again fighting for appropriate powers, including arbitration, to be vested in the Commission.

Unions recognise that there is a tension between the right to free collective bargaining and the existence of compulsory arbitration, but, in the interests of some equity and fairness for working Australians’ particularly those without significant bargaining power, an appropriate balance between the two must be found; this balance would marry the best of the Australian vision of 1904 with the international standards of 2001.

The Minimum Wage

1907 saw the historic Higgins Harvester judgement, from which so much wage history has flowed. While reflective of the patriarchal society where men were considered the breadwinners, the case nevertheless it set a wage that was deemed to be adequate to provide for the needs of a family.

By contrast the minimum wage in Australia in 2001 is influenced by the Federal Government and employers dismissing any notion of need as they attempt to make the poorest paid workers bear the burden of economic slowdown.

The ACTU’s claim for a $28 a week increase for low-paid workers is not only fair reasonable and it is also desperately necessary.

Australia is developing an American style ‘working poor.’ Hundreds of thousands of low-paid households are struggling to afford the basic necessities of life.

The material from the ABS’s ‘Household Expenditure Survey’ (September 2000) paints a disturbing picture of life for low-income families in 21st Century Australia.

Of Australia’s approximately 800,000 low-paid working households an estimated 30, 000 went without meals or could not afford to heat their homes due to a shortage of money.

More than 115,000 working households bought second-hand clothing because they couldn’t afford new clothes.

Something was sold or pawned in 41,000 low-paid working households because of a shortage of money and 48,000 could not afford to have friends or family over for a special meal once a month.

Almost 120,000 working households could not pay utility bills and 284,000 working families could not afford a holiday away from home for just one week just once a year.

In a damming indictment on the Federal Government, 220,000 low-income households also reported that their standard of living was worse now than two years ago.

In another major study of poverty in Australia, The Smith Family and the National Centre for Economic and Social Modelling has found that that one in five poor Australians now live in a family where wages and salaries are the main income source.

The study concluded that having a job is no a longer guarantee against poverty, and that the numbers of working poor in Australia are growing.

In light of these alarming statistics we would assume that John Howard and his Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott would put their ideological baggage to one side and support unions in their campaign to lift wages for Australia’s 1.7 million low-paid workers. But not so, a position which is simply further evidence that this side of politics is content to have Australia become and increasingly divided community.

Thus 100 years on, in one of the richest countries in the world, working people are again forced to struggle for fundamental wage justice.

The Eight Hour Day

What a magnificent achievement the Eight Hour Day constitutes in Australian Labour history, providing a world first so far ahead of its time in the 18th Century. In 1948 the Arbitration Court, after two years of hearings accepted the ACTU claim for a 40-hour week. This built on decades of struggle by unions for what we call today “reasonable hours.”

Eight hours work, eight hours leisure, eight hours rest! Ask any Australian worker today about work-related issues and hours will be in the priority list. Working families are struggling to balance work and family responsibilities.

In 2001 Australia works amongst the longest hours in the OECD countries. Only the Czech Republic, Mexico, Korea and the USD work longer hours. More than 25 per cent of Australians, the second-largest group in the OECD nations, work more than 50 hours per week.

In the finance sector alone, more than one million hours of overtime are worked every week, with 60 per cent of it unpaid. The majority of unpaid overtime is done by women.

In 2001, the ACTU will again lodge an hours case with the Commission to address these issues.

Equal Pay

While we take great pride in the success of women workers who struggled to achieve the historic equal pay decisions three decades ago, the unions in 2001 are forced to recognise that pay equity still eludes us.

Women make up the majority of the low paid and still occupy in greater numbers the lower end of the pay scales across all industries. 21st Century Australia must face the facts that:


  • 28 per cent of all adult women workers earn less than $12 an hour ($23,713 pa).
  • Nine per cent earn $10 or less an hour ($19,716 pa)
  • Non-managerial adult women workers earn 8.6 per cent less than their male counterparts, who average $19 an hour.


By industry sector:


  • retail: 72% of women earn less than $600 per week compared to 51% of men
  • education health and community services: 62% of women earn less than $800 per week compared to 45% of men
  • finance: 70% of women earn less than $700 per week compared to only 42% of men
  • manufacturing: 59% of women earn less than $600 per week compared to only 33% of men;


Overall, 65 per cent of women earn less than $700 a week, compared with 46 per cent of men. John Howard’s Government has made this picture worse with the deliberate undermining of the award system. Equal pay remains a 21st Century priority.

Working Australians and hence the Labour movement have also supported an egalitarian vision enhanced by the guarantee of the ‘social wage’. This includes essential guarantees of free health and education, along with childcare, aged care and public housing. These issues remain Labour movement priorities.

So to in 2001 are indigenous rights, the rights of immigrants, human rights and environmental standards.
Workers, wherever they are, and irrespective of the particular legislative or government regime, will, like their forebears, fight to retain and enhance industrial rights and social guarantees.

Let me conclude with a message to John Howard. With more than 100 years of history behind us we know Australia’s working families value these fundamental national values and will toss out governments who seek to wreck the industrial and social fabric on which this nation is built.

Sharan Burrow made this adress to the Federal Conference of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History
Australian National University, Canberra, ACT, April 19, 2001.