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Is the new industrial relations reform an inequality trap?

By Ray Cleary - posted Friday, 9 September 2005


Australia has a proud tradition of seeking to ensure all of our citizens have access to a fair and reasonable wage that in turn allows families to provide adequate accommodation, food, healthcare and education. An integral part of this civilised tradition has been an industrial relations system that many would agree has provided a balanced approach to the rights of employers and employees.

The Howard Government’s proposed industrial relations reforms will reshape the workplace landscape in a manner that will tilt the balance firmly in favour of employers at the expense of the Prime Minister’s “battlers”.

It is difficult to believe the Government’s IR reforms are not ideologically motivated when, by Mr Howard’s own admission, the Australian economy has benefited from a sustained period of high productivity and employment growth. Why make such dramatic changes to a system that appears to be working well?

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While there are those who would argue that the current IR system favours one interest group over another, our model has been applauded by many European countries because it delivers minimum living standards as an alternative to massive welfare provision.

In recent years welfare agencies have witnessed growing numbers of “the working poor” turning to them for help. They include the low paid cited in official employment figures, those who only work for one or two days per week and consider themselves underemployed.

It seems the most vulnerable members of our society are constantly being pushed further to the margins as any trace of a fair go is whittled away by harsh political decisions.

The IR changes coupled with the lack of tax relief for low income earners and welfare reform measures suggest a mean streak is developing in our society that mirrors US social policy. Instead of the Government’s promise of a trickle down effect, the changes are more likely to result in reduced living standards and greater financial stress for families.

Workplace reforms in the US have failed to produce any economic miracles. Low paid workers have not received a pay rise for 8 years and the minimum hourly wage sits at around US$5. The same politicians who claim they represent the interests of “families” will further erode the remnants of a decent society that Australia is renowned for, by pushing through these “reforms”.

Those most likely to bear the brunt of the Government’s IR agenda are those who already have limited ability to bargain for their rights at work. The workers with a disability, the single parents, people living with a mental illness and those from non-English backgrounds will be particularly at risk.

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Where is the community debate on making such fundamental changes in the workplace? Surely the onus is on the government to prove the average Australian on $25,000 or less per year will benefit from removing a range of entitlements at work. How will the disabled, the low-skilled and single parents be protected and compensated in the brave new IR system?

Sound and equitable social policy should not be driven by ideology but rather based on a vision that allows everyone the opportunity to contribute to and benefit from the wealth of the nation. Sadly the desire to limit the rights of so many to score political points with the trade union movement will not bring any relief to the battlers Mr Howard used to speak so fondly of.

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Article edited by Angela Sassone.
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About the Author

Dr Ray Cleary is the Chief Executive Officer at Anglicare Victoria, the states largest provider of support services for children and families.

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