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antipodea watching series - articles on Australia

by myriad Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 01:11:36 AM EST

[cross-posted at Booman]

In the recent thread on setting up a "Commonwealth Tribune" or similar, I displayed a possibly unhealthy amount of enthusiasm with regard to contributing articles from an Australian/NZ/generally southern hemisphere perspective.

I figured in the interim it was time to get my butt in gear and start providing some diaries on what is happening in Australia & surrounds at present.

So, work permitting (and it continues to be frantic), I will be posting a series of diaries on key Australian issues and such.

First up: Industrial Relations reforms, the hot-ticket political item of the day, week, year and possibly 10 years. Read on for more.

Australia's industrial relations politics and framework is complex. There is no single framework, rather a separate  - albeit linked- industrial relations system in every state and territory, and another for federal employees. The result is a system of thousands of awards - ie pay rates and attached work standards, rights, conditions and so forth that form a relatively complex web.

Overseeing the web in each state is an independent umpire, usually called something like the Industrial Relations Commission. At the top of the heap is the ultimate independent arbiter, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC). It is the AIRC that sets the minimum wage, minimum workplace awards, certifies agreements -either collective or indidividual - between an employer and employee, and who keeps the workplace for every Australian as fair as possible, mediating and arbitrating industrial disputes and so forth.

The result has been strong but overall not dominating unions, regular and necessary minimum wage rises (the Australian minimum wage is currently AUD$12 and change per hour), and basic inalieable conditions such as four weeks annual leave, sick leave, minimum maternity leave, workers compensation, and so on.

All of this is about to go if Prime Minister John Howard gets his way. This depsite the fact that unemployment is at a record low, industrial disputes are at a record low, the economy is booming. The radical changes Howard wants are nothing short of ideological dogmatism spitting directly in the face of the reality, and the average Australian worker.

But before I do a full diary on the changes being proposed, I want to paint a picture of the landscape as it stands now. To do that, I turn to Australian journalist Elisabeth Wynhausen, who followed the example of Barbara Einreich's seminal work, "Nickle and Dimed" and went undercover to write about the experience of the working underclass in Australia. Her article also foreshadows the changes Howard has now made explicit.

Here is a column she wrote on the experience in the Australian in March 2005. (I apologise for the lack of a link - I can't seem to get the one I had to work, so I think the paper's archiving has screwed up.)

Any bolding emphasis mine.

[update] - forgot to say while I agree in general it's bad form to post whole articles, my lack of functioning link, and outstanding nature of this piece tipped the balance for me.

A slippery slope to inequality

Elisabeth Wynhausen

March 05, 2005 The Australian

FOR all the glorified tale of 14 years' growth in Australia's economy,  nothing has grown faster than low-paid  crummy jobs for women. To tell their side of the story, I joined them, taking unpaid leave from this newspaper to work undercover as a kitchen hand, checkout chick and office cleaner. But I had to find the jobs first.

By poring over the classifieds in local papers, often the best source of the worst jobs, I established that there were always jobs for women who cleaned other people's houses. If you looked at the "help wanted" ads as closely as I did, you started wondering about charting the market economy's winners and  losers with a points system that showed how many people in any given area cleaned other people's toilets for a living and how many never cleaned their own.

The boom has lasted since the early 1990s - long enough to seem unending. Unemployment is at a 28-year low. Interest rates are low. Profits are high. But millions of Australians are still scraping by on a minimum wage of $467.40 a week, less than double the median weekly rent of a two-bedroom  unit in Sydney or Melbourne. The ACTU [Australian Council of Trade Unions] has asked the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to award  them another $26.60 a week. Employer groups, which have watched the salaries  of chief executives rise 29per cent in a single year, say that giving workers on minimum wages another 70c an hour will wreck everything. Peter Hendy, the chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and  Industry, described the $26.60 as "excessive" and "inflationary". In reality, the wages share of the economy continues to fall. The Inquirer  reported last month that it is lower today than it was when John Howard became prime minister nine years ago.

The profit share has never been higher. But after two decades of the much vaunted economic reforms, one in four members of the workforce is a casual and denied basic benefits such as annual leave and sick pay. There isn't another country in the world with so many casual workers, and studies suggest the ratio will rise to one in three by the end of the decade. In my book Dirt Cheap, I write that employer groups confronted with such figures "invariably demand more of the same, promoting the fiction that  workplace reform benefits employees by giving them more choice over the conditions of their employment, a theme continued by the Howard Government".

The Government now appears determined to strip the AIRC of the power to set  the minimum wage, possibly replacing it with a system in which the minimum  wage is set by law, as in the US where the federal minimum wage has been  $US5.15 an hour for about a decade (and full-time workers may not earn  enough to cover the rent of a trailer home). Nonetheless, Australian business leaders are suggesting that the  Government's proposals do not go far enough. The Business Council of  Australia also wants to eliminate minimum award conditions relating to ordinary hours of work, rest breaks, public holidays, long service leave,  allowances, penalty rates, redundancy pay and superannuation.

In the opinion  page of The Australian, Business Council chairman and Wesfarmers chief executive Michael Chaney argued that it was time for another bout of reform  because it had been 10 years since the last one. "Deregulation has seen Australia shift from an uncompetitive and rigid system of centralised wage fixing to one where employers and employees have greater freedom and flexibility to negotiate pay and conditions to best suit their needs," he wrote last month. The mantra of flexibility has helped keep wages down.

But in my experience the flexibility was all on one side and, not surprisingly, not on the side of the middle-aged female worker earning $12 or $13 an hour.

The contract handed to me at a small Melbourne hotel that employed me as a buffet attendant - at $11.98 an hour, starting at 6am and working weekends - explained that the company could call on my services 24/7 and demand more or less than 40 hours a week without advance notice or consultation, "where business circumstances or unexpected absences or demands for labour create a need to alter the roster". But that was nothing compared with all the flexibility on offer when one of  the largest companies in Australia gave me a job in retail. Not that the hard-faced bitch from personnel seemed to be talking about what we used to think of as a job. "You may be asked to work any hours from nought to 38 a week," she said.

Permanent work can be hard to find, especially in retail, but the casuals  soon to comprise half the industry may be put on permanent standby, unable to make so much as an appointment in advance without cancelling at the last  minute. The company's hold over casual employees struck me as a reversion to the time 70 or 80 years ago when men went to union halls and wharves and stood around waiting each morning to see if they would get work that day. The big  retailers have tidied up the process so that management barely has to deal with the messy human element. They just leave you waiting at the other end of the phone.

I might be offered one three-hour shift one week and three the next - or get two weeks' notice of another single shift. Had I been on government benefits, I would have had to spend my life re-calculating my income - lodging a form every fortnight to declare any earnings in the previous two  weeks. Those on benefits have to declare earnings when they do the work, not when they are paid, even if there is nothing to count on in the weeks in between (which is quite a contrast with the people making the rules - the Centrelink executives whose salaries have swollen from $85,888 a year in 1997-98 to $128,165 in 2003-04). I came to suspect that the employers in retail and hospitality hiring  casuals by the truckload relied on the fact many could supplement their earnings with government benefits - family payments in particular. This suspicion seemed to be confirmed when the Business Council asserted that the burden of fairness for disadvantaged workers should not be borne by employers.

They're not getting any argument about it from Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews. In a speech to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia last week, Andrews said: "As the Business Council recently argued, an emphasis on fairness only leads to regulatory excess." There was a time, not long ago, when Australians prided themselves on giving people a fair go. Those days must have passed into history if a federal minister can bring himself to voice the sentiment that fairness has no place in setting the wages of the lowest paid.

Strictly speaking, he may be overdoing it. Two out of seven of the employers I encountered as a low-wage worker had so successfully shrugged off the burden of fairness that they ripped me off. I like to think of myself as hard-headed, so it is embarrassing to admit that the possibility I was being cheated of my rightful earnings hadn't crossed my mind. But my lapses were instructive. Employer groups are always  arguing that they should be able to negotiate pay and conditions with individual employees (a situation the Howard Government is doing everything it can to introduce), basing their case on the risible pretence that the parties come to the negotiations on an equal footing, whether or not the worker meeting with managers speaks halting English or reads with difficulty. If they were equal, presumably the anonymous drones of the service industry would have managed to capitalise on the demand for their labour rather than slaving away for $12.30 an hour.

Elisabeth Wynhausen's Dirt Cheap: Life at the Wrong End of the Job Market is published  by Pan Macmillan.

Thank you for your diary, and look forward to hearing more about Australian and New Zealand politics!

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 02:58:34 AM EST
Thanks, your interest will help hold me to it. I don't know nearly enough about New Zealand to write about it frequently, so I'll probably stick with an Australian focus in the main, but making a public commitment like this will (I hope) motivate me to learn more about what's going on across the Tasman too.

Also, some term definitions for those not used to them:

Penalties - higher hourly pay rates paid for working late shifts, on public holidays and on weekends. Eg you typically get double time for working a public holiday, time and a half for weekends.

Superannuation - compulsory contributions on top of your salary paid by your employer to a public or private fund that invests said contribution for your retirement. At the moment the mandatory employer superannuation payment is 9% of your gross salary.

Redundancy - where a worker is paid out if their job is lost with an amount typically negotiated as a number of months or years of salary, like a severance package.

If there are others, let me know.

"This can't possibly get more disturbing!" - Willow

by myriad (imogenk at wildmail dot com) on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 03:52:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I hear that Howard is Australia's Bush...and so, he's going to lower the standard of living, by eliminating or lowering the hourly wage? If yes, is there any way to block him, or does he have free run?

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 08:16:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yep, in fact I often describe him as Bush's 'mini-me' - except (in the spirit of 'never underestimate your enemy') he is much smarter and politically savvy than Bush. Which just makes him more scarey.

He wants to do away with the current independent umpire (the Australian Industrial Relations Commission - AIRC) that determines the minimum wage by hearing cases made by the unions vs the case put by business & government. Under Howard, the case of business and government have been one and the same. Since coming into power in 1996, Howard has opposed every single wage rise brought in front of the AIRC. A testament to the strength of that independent umpire is that in most cases the government has lost, or there has been a compromise on the size of the wage rise reached. As you can see from the above article, it's hardly been gargantuan over the last 10 years - but if Howard had had his way, the poorest Australians would be $2000+ a year worse off right now.

Can we stop him? Well, in the October 04 election, the Howard government got a majority in both houses of parliament - previously the opposition parties held the majority in the Senate when they worked together, and had consistently blocked further attacks on our Industrial Relations laws. That major obstacle to Howard has now gone. The result is that this is going to be one of the most public and bloody fights between unions and government in a generation.

I'm going to cover the specifics of the changes, implications etc. next diary.

cheers, Imogen (myriad)

"This can't possibly get more disturbing!" - Willow

by myriad (imogenk at wildmail dot com) on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 07:20:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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