Governments IR revolution is a free kick for big business but will be kick in the guts for workers Australian workers. Opinion piece by Greg Combet, ACTU Secretary, Australian Financial Review, Opinion, 27 May 2005.

Government’s IR revolution is a free kick for big business but will be
kick in the guts for workers Australian workers

Millions of Australian workers are set to lose their access to award
employment conditions, protection from unfair dismissal, and an effective safety
net of minimum wages under new workplace changes announced by the Prime Minister
John Howard yesterday.

With this direct attack on the rights of Australian workers John Howard has
abandoned all pretence that he is a friend of the battlers. 

Under the changes announced by the Government:

  • 99% of Australian companies will be able to sack
    employees without regard to fair process or reasoning meaning over 3.6 million
    Australian workers will have no remedy against unfair dismissal.
  • Minimum wages will be allowed to fall in value and all other award wages,
    currently relied upon by 1.6 million workers and their families would likely be
  • The award safety net will be effectively abolished and replaced with just
    four minimum conditions.
  • Employers will be encouraged to force workers onto Australian Workplace
    Agreement individual contracts (AWAs) that will allow existing pay rates and
    employment conditions to be slashed.
  • It will be harder for employees to access information, support or assistance
    from a union.
  • The independent Industrial Relations Commission is to be gutted, and
  • State industrial relations systems will be attacked.
  • If enacted these proposals will threaten the wages, conditions and living
    standards of Australian employees at a time when many working families are
    already struggling just to keep their head above water. 

    The Government’s policies are based on out-dated ideology and do
    nothing to address the labour market shortages, training backlogs and
    infrastructure blockages that are hampering Australia’s economic

    The removal of the Industrial Relations Commission from its role in setting
    award minimum wages in place of the Orwellian-named Fair Pay Commission clearly
    has the objective of setting Australia on the path to US style wage poverty.

    We know this because if, over the past eight years, the governments’
    submission to the minimum wages case had prevailed the minimum rates would be
    $44 per week or $2,288 a year lower than its current $467.60 per week.  And
    Minister Andrews has said he thinks the national minimum wage should be $70 per
    week lower than this.  The losers will be workers with lower labour market
    power- traditionally unskilled workers, women and young people.

    The government justifies the change by perpetuating the falsehood that
    Australia’s minimum wages system has suppressed jobs growth.  This is
    demonstrably not true.  Employment growth in two Australian industries with
    highest proportion of award wage workers Health and community services and
    Accommodation cafes and restaurants has almost double the all average employment
    growth of other industries since 1996.

    The government has announced the creation of just four statutory minimum
    conditions of employment – annual leave, personal leave, parental leave
    and a maximum level for ordinary hours of work  – to form a new ‘no
    disadvantage test’ against which collective or individual agreements will
    be assessed.

    Under these arrangements Australian workers could be lawfully stripped of
    basic conditions such as public holidays, redundancy pay, weekend and night-time
    penalty rates, overtime pay, annual leave loading, casual loading, pay for work
    on public holidays and reimbursement for work related expenses.

    Agreement making will follow the laws of the jungle. The weak will have to
    cop the terms dictated by the employer in individual contracts (called AWAs),
    and face the sack if they refuse. The notion that individual workers will be
    able to stave off the pressure to cut pay and conditions that will be created by
    these changes is ridiculous. As soon as the economy slows down there will be no
    safety net to fall back on.

    Research conducted by Griffith University last year found that, when
    managerial and professional employees are excluded from the data, employees on
    AWAs reported increased hours and work intensity, poorer work-family-balance and
    lower satisfaction with their pay and conditions. 

    For example, employees on AWAs working in labouring, clerical, service and
    trade related jobs are already paid between 16.5% and 18% less than workers
    doing the same jobs who are covered by collective agreements.

    The Federal Government also wants to bully the States into handing over their
    industrial relations powers, creating a single national unitary industrial
    relations system.  If the States don’t agree, John Howard has said he
    will legislate away the State industrial systems.

    Unions will fight to protect the rights of working people.  We will do
    this on three fronts.  We will build a disciplined workplace campaign to
    protect the pay and conditions of Australian workers. We will build opposition
    to the changes in the wider community, including using paid advertising. 
    And we will work with the State and Territory governments and other
    organisations to build a wall of opposition against the Government’s

    John Howard has made very clear that now he has control of the Senate he is
    prepared to sacrifice working families at the expense of big business.

    Greg Combet – ACTU Secretary