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The gap between work and choices

By David Peetz - posted Monday, 12 March 2007


When the government launched a $55 million advertising campaign, "WorkChoices" was created as a single symbol. Yet the gap between work and choices, embedded subtly in the legislation's title (the "Work Choices" Amendment Act) is experienced starkly by many employees.

Government spin has not been enough to turn around public opinion. The polls show that WorkChoices remains deeply unpopular with voters. The policy is opposed by a margin of two or three to one. Among voters who believe industrial relations is the most important election issue, the margin is four to one against the government.

The government fell seriously behind Labor when WorkChoices was debated in Parliament, and was - in trend terms - behind in all three major polls through most of 2006, from the time WorkChoices took effect. WorkChoices represents a clear and present danger to the re-election of the government.

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In Sydney, within days of WorkChoices taking effect, Amber Oswald, a 16-year-old casual working in a juice bar, was put on to an AWA that cut her weekly pay from $97 to $65. Her boss told the media: “If they don’t want to sign, they can leave … It’s not about what’s fair, it’s [about] what’s right - right for the company.”

Amber was able to challenge it through her union because the AWA had not been offered properly - she had not actually seen it before she was put on it. But after winning her case for back pay, she was taken off her Sunday shift which had attracted double-time rates. One day, a few months later, she was told not to come in the next day because the store was closed - for “rebranding”.

Therein lies the problem for many casual workers. In theory, workers are still protected from “unlawful termination” if they are sacked for refusing to sign an AWA. It is expensive - a case will cost upwards of $30,000 to run through the federal court - so if you are not wealthy or in a union, it is at best a threat. But for casuals, if you do not sign you can just find that your rosters are changed, your hours are cut back until it is barely worth coming in to work any more.

At retailer Spotlight, new employees were offered AWAs that abolished penalty rates, overtime rates, rest breaks, incentive-based payments and bonuses, annual leave loading and public holidays. For those who worked Thursday nights and Saturdays, this would cost $90 a week. In return, they received an increase in their base hourly rate of pay of two cents an hour. That was OK, said Spotlight management. Because that is just “the starting point … Our store managers negotiate the rates with the staff depending on the skill of the person and market forces.” But if the starting point for “negotiations” is $90 a week less, then most workers are going to be hard pressed to get near what they would have been automatically entitled to under the old system.

WorkChoices is not about increasing productivity or prosperity; rather, it is about increasing the power of those who already have the most power and resources, and in doing so taking power away from those who have the least, and from those who would challenge the power of the mighty.

The greatest power rests with those who own and control the most resources. They use those resources to generate profit and more resources and power. In order to do so, they typically organise themselves into a collective of capital known as a corporation. This collective form has all sorts of benefits, including the granting of the status of an “artificial person”, and the granting of limited liability. Workers respond to the power of capital by organising collectively into unions, as the power of an individual employee bargaining with a corporation is minimal, but the power of employees bargaining together is potentially quite substantial.

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WorkChoices seeks to undercut this challenge to the power of corporations, by removing many of the protections that workers previously had as a result of the pressure exerted collectively by workers for over a century, lowering the starting point for negotiations (if negotiations occur), and making it very difficult - and sometimes illegal - for workers to bargain collectively. It seeks, in effect, to re-establish the great divide between the strong and the weak.

One mechanism for this is the targeting of trade unions. In no other Western democracy can a union be fined for seeking similar outcomes in different agreements (“pattern bargaining”), or for including in a collective agreement provisions that protect against unfair dismissal. In no other Western country can a worker be jailed for six months for refusing to answer questions asked by government inquisitors about what happened at a union meeting where such seditious matters as pattern bargaining or union security provisions were discussed.

As of June 30, 2006, 29 people had secretly been questioned under threat of jail if they refused to submit or told anyone about what happened in the interrogation room. Some were denied the right to be represented by the lawyer of their choice.

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Edited extract from Griffith REVIEW 15: Divided Nation ($19.95, ABC Books) www.griffith.edu.au/griffithreview. The full text can be read here (PDF 196KB).



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About the Author

David Peetz is the author of Brave New Workplace: How Individual Contracts are Changing Our Jobs (Allen and Unwin, 2006), and Professor of Industrial Relations at Griffith University.

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