The 2011 dispute which led to Qantas management’s lock-out of staff, causing grounding of planes and disruption of travellers’ plans, centered on whether jobs should be retained in Australia rather than be sent offshore. The question was, in the end, whether Qantas should maintain industrial standards of work conforming to expectations of Australian workers and fair determinations of Australian industrial tribunals and workplace agreements, or avoid them.
Under the Howard government’s ‘Work Choices’ workplace standards were downgraded, the argument being that Australia must be able to compete in a global market and that notions of staffing, wages and conditions of work once accepted as ‘fair’ in Australian workplaces operate against global competitiveness. For the Howard government, competing in economic terms meant reducing industrial conditions to the lowest common denominator. If workers are exploited in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand or the Middle-East, then, runs the argument, Australia can compete only if workers’ conditions in Australia are lowered to the levels experienced in those countries.
The alternative is for jobs to be exported, so that companies and their shareholders can profit from lower standards of pay, poor industrial conditions, lesser health and safety requirements: indeed, standards against which Australian trade unions, and British trade unions before them, have struggled since the industrial revolution.
With the repeal of ‘Work Choices’ and the coming of the Labor government’s industrial policy, the notion now guiding some corporate heads appears to be that of taking the latter path: seeking to undermine the Australian industrial relations system by removing jobs from Australian workers or demanding that Australian workers should themselves go offshore to recover their former jobs at lesser pay and absent industrial rights and protections.
Is this the answer to competition in the airline industry?
Deregulation of the airline industry has meant service standards and workers conditions have come under challenge. Airlines have been able to avoid the standards that guided Qantas, and that had made Qantas the safest airline in the world. Now Qantas has slipped from that exalted status, aircraft ‘incidents’ alleged to have arisen from mechanical failures consequent upon off-shore servicing of aircraft.
Deregulation meant the market was opened not only to companies adopting the ‘fly on the cheap’ strategy, such as JetStar, Regional Xpress and others but to airlines such as Etihad, Emirates and Qatar, designed to attract a more up-market clientele yet able to sustain lower fares, ‘specials’ and fare offers. The suggestion is that these companies are vanity or boutique airlines, run by oil-rich states having access to such extensive resources that they can sustain operations without the same pressures as Qantas. Nor do they need to pare service delivery and standards, by basing their operations in Vietnam and Singapore, as with JetStar, so as to (it is claimed) maintain a ‘workable’ profit margin. Worker rights and conditions in their region of origin are not based on the principles and practices pertaining in Australia. Along with the ACTU, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) raises regular concerns about worker and trade union rights in the GCC, which includes the United Arab Emirates and Qatar as members.
Should we then simply stand by, allowing Qantas to collapse in the face of this unfair competition, or watch silently while Qantas piece-by-piece transfers its staff and operations to JetStar, to take advantage of JetStar’s freedom from the requirement to remain at least 51 per cent Australian-owned? Artificially complying, in this way, to the statutory limit setting foreign-ownership of Qantas to 49 per cent, Qantas would be an ‘Australian’ company operated not only from outside Australia, but by its ‘subsidiary’, JetStar. Alternatively, Qantas sets up companies outside Australia, without any Australian-ownership requirement, and runs operations from a foreign base. Once again, it escapes Australian industrial standards, operating on cheap labour and denying its workforce the rights and protections accruing to Australian-based workers.
Surely the time has come to set industrial requirements on all airlines entering Australian airspace, all airlines seeking to enter the Australian market, all airline companies using Australian airports?
A reflection on sea and shipping protocol is not inappropriate here. In the 1920s, government regulation and particularly the cost of labour set shipping companies into avoidance mode. Instead of registering their vessels in the United States, they registered them in Panama, where labour was cheap and government regulation miniscule. Forty years on, Liberia became the world’s largest register of shipping. By 2010, ‘flags of convenience’ flew on more than half the world’s merchant ships, the vast majority flying Panamanian, Liberian or Marshall Islands flags, while the International Transport Workers Federation (ITWF) lists thirty-two countries as ‘declared FOCs’. Admiralty law operates so that should any of these vessels be involved in collisions or other shipping disputes, they claim coverage under the law of the flag under which they sail.
Yet should this mean that sailors or other shipping staff who are subjected to substandard conditions are left to endure perilous health and safety rules, or a total lack of them? Are workers to make do with inadequate food and sleeping accommodation? Are they to be subjected without relief to lengthy shifts leaving them tired and in danger of long-term health problems, accidents or causing harm to themselves or fellow crew through lassitude or inattention?
While ships lie in harbour, in ports of countries having good industrial conditions, health and safety regulations, and liveable wage requirements, are crew denied recourse to or protection of the port-country’s laws? Not so. In shipping, inspections of vessels in port can be undertaken. Ships that do not come up to standard can be detained.
Jocelynne Scutt is a longtime member of the Qantas Club and Qantas Frequent Flyers, and a committed Qantas traveller. She has on occasion flown on Frequent Flyer Points or used them for upgrading. Most recently in flying from Australia to London, she was upgraded to first class. She has no shares and no financial interest in Qantas.
She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.