21 July 2021

Melissa Coade, reporting for the public service industry magazine, The Mandarin: “On Tuesday CPSU national president Alistair Waters told a senate inquiry into the current capability of the APS that decisions made by Services Australia to silence concerns raised by public servants about the bungled robodebt scheme, and replace them with labor hire staff to do the work, saw the automated debt-collecting program executed in spite of warnings from experienced bureaucrats. ‘Of the almost 1,600 labour hire workers engaged in Services Australia at the end of April, around 800 work in the payments and integrity group, raising debts,’ Waters told the senate committee. ‘This labour hire workforce was introduced when robodebt was being implemented. Permanent staff who then worked in the robodebt area objected to the lawfulness of the program and were moved to other duties. An insecure workforce of about 800 labour hire employees were then brought in by Services Australia to implement robodebt.’ In June this year the Federal Court approved a $1.8 billion settlement for hundreds of thousands of Centrelink recipients who were wrongfully issued with debt notices. Justice Bernard Murphy outlined in a scathing decision against the Commonwealth that it ‘should have been obvious’ to public servants and ministers running the scheme that the process for determining debts was flawed.” It’s not obvious to people who have no institutional knowledge or understanding. Content-free managers were the first wave of neoliberal attack on public service. Content-free (and job security-free) employees are the next wave.

James Clark: “Supermarkets have become an indispensable part of modern life. Most of us shop at them several times a week. Almost everyone buys their fruit, vegetables, meat, and dairy there, as well as cleaning products, toiletries, basic medicine, and whatever household supplies we need. Supermarkets are the center of our food system. The products they decide to stock and promote impact the health and well-being of the entire population. But their real influence comes from their buying power. As the largest buyers, the decisions that supermarket chains make flow through our whole economy. From what farmers grow to how shipping companies schedule their fleets, supermarkets set the agenda for the food system. That system is broken. To fix it, we need to take the supermarkets out of private hands. … In fact, supermarkets already plan our food system. But they do it for the sake of profit maximization rather than the public good and long-term sustainability. Supermarkets use their influence over what we eat to promote high-margin, low-nutrition foods. Their buying power places arduous demands on their supply chains, leading to worker exploitation. Like all other essential services, the supermarket should be in the hands of the people.”

Good news/bad news: “A Melbourne magistrate said he was handcuffed by legal limitations from giving Coles the sentence he felt it deserved for underpaying staff. Coles Australia has been fined $50,000 for underpaying long service leave to more than 4000 Victorian employees in a landmark case. The supermarket giant, who pleaded guilty to seven charges on March 30, was sentenced in Melbourne Magistrate’s Court on Wednesday. The court heard an audit revealed Coles failed to correctly pay 4096 Victorian employees their long service leave, totalling $697,016. On Wednesday magistrate Justin Foster slammed new long service leave legislation that prevented him from slapping the company with a bigger fine. He said the $50,000 did not reflect how serious the offending was and set a dangerous precedent for future cases.” While the magistrate is right about the low maximum penalty, this case is still a big step forward — at last, employers face criminal prosecution for ripping off their employees. The federal government’s Fair Work Ombudsman does not treat wage theft as a crime, but the new Victorian Wage Inspectorate is taking a tougher approach.

13 July 2021

Annina Claeson: “In Iceland, the Reykjavik City Council, the trade union confederation BSRB, and the national government ran a series of trials of a four-day working week between 2015 and 2019 — the world’s largest experiment thus far in shortening working hours without slashing wages. … The Icelandic trials were a direct response to campaigning pressures from trade unions and other grassroots organizations. Over 2,500 workers in the public sector (more than 1 percent of the country’s entire working population) moved from a forty-hour to thirty-five- or thirty-six-hour working weeks without any reductions in pay. The scale of the trial, combined with the variety of workplaces involved (including both nine-to-five workers and those on nonstandard shifts) means that the Icelandic experiment now provides some of the best data available on the prospect of shortening the working week. It should come as no surprise that this data paints a positive picture. Workers reported experiencing better health and less stress and burnout, and they had more time to spend with their families or on leisure activities. Productivity and service provision either remained at similar levels or improved in the majority of workplaces. With Iceland’s unions playing a key role every step of the way, they wasted no time in building on the trial’s success to negotiate shortened working hours on a permanent basis. Thanks to a series of successfully negotiated contracts in 2019–2021, 86 percent of Iceland’s working population has either already moved to shortened working hours or gained the right to negotiate such reductions in the future.”

12 July 2021

Jason Wilson: “In Australia, scholars working in the related field of critical race and whiteness studies have for decades analysed Australia’s nature as a colonial state, founded on stolen land, which excluded Indigenous people and non-white immigrants from its commonwealth at its foundation, and where vast inequalities remain between Indigenous and white Australia. There are several possible responses that a white person can have to this. One possible response is visible in the moral panic around critical race theory. … Conservative media, which subsists on hate clicks, has eagerly jumped on this train. Australia’s dim-bulb rightwingers have followed. The real function of these arguments is to close white ears to demands for justice which are premised on simple facts about how their settler-colonial societies were built — including by means of theft, forced labor, and the consolidation of stolen property with state power. In this version of history, white America is itself the victim of the scheming of European marxist academics, with critical race theorists pulling the strings of protesters in the streets. … Another is available for those who see all of this as a compelling analysis of a vast historical injustice, which matches a systemic explanation with a systemic problem. The next step for them is to engage with and listen to the demands emerging from racial justice protests; to acknowledge how, why, and for whom our institutions were designed, and how they and other white people have benefited from it; and to find ways to assist with the enormous task of righting an almost incomprehensible wrong. If you’re white, this approach may be worth a try. Denying history uses up a lot of energy that could be spent on building a better, more inclusive future.”

3 July 2021

Yet another attack on civil society by the Morrison Government: “The Australian government introduced new regulations last week that could have a major chilling effect across Australia’s diverse charities sector. The government’s aim was clear: the regulations are intended to target ‘activist organisations’, and specifically crack down on ‘unlawful behaviour’. Despite this rhetoric, there is no evidence unlawful behaviour by charities is a problem of any significance. By clamping down on charities in this way, the government is not only curtailing their ability to organise peaceful protests, it is imposing more unnecessary red tape on an already highly-regulated sector. The regulations would give the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) new powers to take action against a charity if it commits, or fails to adequately ensure its resources aren’t used to commit, certain types of ‘summary offences’. These are generally a less serious type of criminal offence, and can include acts such as trespassing, unlawful entry, malicious damage or vandalism. If the ACNC commissioner believes a charity is not complying with the regulations, they would be able to take enforcement action, which may include deregistering the charity. … In effect, the regulations mean that if a charity organised a protest in front of a government department and initially refused to leave, this could be considered trespassing. And this could then be grounds to have the charity deregistered. … [A] comprehensive review of the ACNC legislation commissioned by the government in 2018 did not identify any issues with unlawful behaviour by charities. In fact, the review recommended removing the ACNC’s existing power to take action against charities that commit serious breaches of the law. … Despite this, the new regulations would extend the reach of the ACNC and expand its existing powers even further.”

(In case you think the regulator would surely be reasonable in using its new power, remember its chairman is a greedy, pro-coal, racist eugenicist who has long been committed to removing charitable status from organisations that advocate on policy.)

Research by Anna Stansbury at the Peterson Institute for International Economics: “To what extent do US firms have an incentive to comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)? Stansbury examines this question through a simple comparison of the expected costs of noncompliance (in terms of legal sanctions) to the profits firms can earn through noncompliance. In the case of the FLSA minimum wage and overtime provisions, typical willful violators are required to pay back wages owed and in some cases additional penalties, if detected by the Department of Labor (DOL). Based on available data on the penalties levied, a typical firm would need to expect a chance of at least 78-88 percent that its violation would be detected in order to have an incentive to comply with the FLSA. In practice, the probability of detection many firms can expect to face is likely much lower than this. In the case of the NLRA, a firm that fires a worker illegally is required to reinstate the worker with back pay if the violation is detected. Based on empirical estimates of the effect of unionization on firm profits, a typical firm may have an incentive to fire a worker illegally for union activities if this illegal firing would reduce the likelihood of unionization at the firm by as little as 0.15-2 percent. These analyses illustrate that neither the FLSA nor the NLRA penalty and enforcement regimes create sufficient incentive to comply for many firms. In this context, the substantial evidence of minimum wage and overtime violations, and of illegal employer behavior toward unions, is not surprising.” It would be fascinating to see a similar analysis of the Fair Work Ombudsman’s time and wages enforcement, and of the Fair Work Commission’s adverse action decisions. I can’t imagine our toothless tigers would fare much better.

30 June 2021

Herald Sun regurgitates ABCC’s bogus claims — union fined for legitimate safety concern

Regurgitating an ABCC press release, the Herald Sun claims “[t]he militant construction union has been fined $85,000 for delaying work on the Melbourne Metro Tunnel project, after the CFMMEU made bogus safety claims.” The delay was 4 hours and 15 minutes — but if you read the court judgment, it was the ABCC who made bogus claims.

The court rejected the ABCC’s argument that “a Union shop steward had deliberately brought about the two stoppages ‘relying on a safety pretext’. Putting aside there had been no identification of what that pretext was or might have been even in the particulars, no such allegation had been pleaded or admitted.”

Despite the hearing being adjourned to allow it to bring its submissions into line with the facts, “[l]ike a battleship in full steam, the ABCC thus appears to have had had difficulty turning” — it maintained its bogus assertion that the safety concern was raised for “nefarious purposes”.

The judge was unimpressed: “there was nothing in the facts, admitted or agreed, as could justify such an assertion.” The ABCC’s arguments were “over-egged”, “entirely implausible”, “bordering on the improper”.

And the safety concern was real — after comparing photos of the first aid room to the relevant Worksafe standards, the judge found:

The ABCC’s submissions … conspicuously … omit any reference to what the Court might make as to the validity of [the union’s] (acknowledged in the agreed statement of facts) concern about a lack of a ramp to provide access to the first aid room.

The omission stands out as of consequence once regard is had to what is revealed by three photographs of the first aid room… When what those photographs reveal is contrasted with the guidance standards set out in Worksafe Victoria’s Compliance Code First aid in the workplace … the Court is drawn to the conclusion that [the union]’s concerns about the adequacy of the first aid room may have been far from baseless and misconceived. …

I take it to be a matter of common knowledge that any major construction site can be, absent a focussed attention on safety, an inherently a dangerous place to work.

The prospect of an injury on such as site that might require a person to be conveyed by stretcher to first aid may not be ‘imminent’ but it is self-evidently foreseeable that such a circumstance may emerge.

In that regard what is shown by the photograph of the exterior of the first aid room that is in evidence is there was no ramp and that access to or from that room by anyone on a stretcher would have been impossible or at least highly problematic. I am satisfied that any HSR on a major worksite would have a reasonable basis for concern in that regard. I am satisfied that [the union’s] concern, viewed objectively, was a reasonable one. …

[A]s Freud is reported to have observed ‘sometimes a cigar is just a cigar’. Similarly, sometimes a concern about safety is no more or less than that.

So if the ABCC was dodgy and the safety concern was real, why was the union fined? Well, because of a legal technicality.

As the judge explained, “Although I proceed on the basis that there was no ‘imminent risk’, if a serious incident had occurred and as a result of that neglect access to the first aid room had proved difficult the consequences might have seen this matter play out very differently.”

In other words, the CFMMEU was fined $85,000 for pressuring an employer over a legitimate safety concern before someone needed to be stretchered into the first aid room. The Fair Work Act is a dangerous joke.

28 June 2021

Morrison’s vaccine and quarantine failures mean we are going to keep having lockdowns, so we need to make the burden fair: “Lockdowns socialise the burden of public health responses. It means that the worker who may be bullied into putting themselves at risk by their employer can more easily say no, or is in fact mandated to say no. Paying people to stay at home is also part of socialising the burden. All places where the virus can readily spread, including all indoor non-essential venues such as retail outlets, gyms, hairdressers, restaurants and bars, must be closed. All workers who can, should be told to work from home and their workplaces closed. JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments should be restored to their previous levels, and paid pandemic leave made available to anyone who needs it while awaiting test results, quarantining, or unable to work because they have the virus. This is the opposite of the approach of the NSW government, which has emphasised individual responsibility and offered no support to those who lack the means of individually keeps themselves safe. These new measures privatise COVID responsibility to individuals with the least cost to business and the government. It’s the same logic and politics as criminalising the limo driver for the failures in the government’s public health measures. Individual responsibility in a pandemic just means the rich avoid the disease and the loss of profits while workers bear the burden of disease and suffering and economic loss.”

23 June 2021

Former SA Premier Jay Weatherill: “I firmly believe that the Australian Labor Party would be elected at the next federal election on a commitment to make Australia the best place in the world to be a parent, and the best place in the world to grow up. … [Such a platform could] remove the false dichotomy between social and economic policy, build a bridge across Labor’s disparate constituencies and unite and powerfully activate women. … For over a quarter of a century, the Left has been looking for a coherent economic narrative equal to its vision for an equal, empathetic, vibrant, diverse society… in the face of rising insecurity and anxiety we have not done enough to challenge the economic orthodoxy of our generation. The more we used the language of economics to argue for human-centred public policy, the more our electoral proposition appeared limited to a better version of the same product… this limited our capacity to deliver the critique of neoliberalism it deserved, nor did we develop an accessible and attractive alternate vision. The neoliberal agenda, which was once legitimised for its promise of a stronger economy, has produced low growth cycles, unevenly distributed, with rising levels of social dislocation — this is not a healthy picture of a modern society. But during the current pandemic, attitudes to the role of government have changed — people’s vision of government as the source of security has been renewed. People now want, and expect, governments to step up, be active and intervene in their interests.”

He proposes early childhood policy reform to drive this agenda — decommodifying childcare and transforming it from child-minding into an early learning system. Wouldn’t be a bad start.