archive: February 2019

28 February 2019

The Centre for Future Work’s Troy Henderson has some ideas about stamping out wage theft. In addition to more wage inspectors and making wage theft a crime, he rightly identifies collective action by workers as the mechanism that will make the difference: “Restoring unions’ rights to visit workplaces, request pay records, and take quick action to ensure correct wages are being paid would be another step forward. Speaking of unions, more collective representation for vulnerable workers would both help them to detect wage theft, and then stand up to it without fear of reprisal: it’s no coincidence that underpayment occurs most often in the least unionised industries. And we should systematically educate young people (starting in high school) and migrant workers (through migrant services, universities and adult education) about their rights in the workplace. They need to know what they are entitled to, and how to take action if they are being ripped off. Once upon a time unions were invited into schools to do precisely that — but in the current climate of union-bashing, they are no longer welcome in most states.”

27 February 2019

An independent review of Australia’s workplace safety system has recommended a national industrial manslaughter law, to ensure that bosses who kill workers can be sent to jail. Rejecting claims by the business lobby that existing general manslaughter laws are sufficient, the review noted significant technical hurdles under the general law, which make “prosecutions of large companies for manslaughter almost impossible”. The report endorsed community demands that there “should be a separate industrial manslaughter offence where there is a gross deviation from a reasonable standard of care that leads to a workplace death”, and the new law should prevent businesses using their corporate structure as a legal shield.

26 February 2019

Two stories about climate communication today. First, the bad — announcing a rehash of the Coalition’s failed climate policy, our Prime Minister thinks he can hide its shortcomings by stammering an ocker mantra: “It is absolutely fair dinkum power. It doesn’t get more fair dinkum than this. This is fair dinkum, 100%.” But now the good — on Channel 7’s weather reports, Jane Bunn is putting weather in context, drawing on work by the Climate Change Communication Research Hub. On a rainy day in July, she notes there has been a “trend toward less July days with significant rain”; on a cool day in May, she observes the “overall trend since the late 70s is warmer than the long-term average”. Says Bunn: “I just want the facts, quietly put through in a straightforward way that people can understand.” If only our government did, too.

25 February 2019

A new Oxfam report on the garment industry has blamed Australian companies for using Bangladeshi and Vietnamese sweatshops in their supply chains. A factory supplying Kmart pays as little as 55c an hour, and a factory supplying Big W pays just 51c an hour — with disastrous effects on workers and their families. There is absolutely no reason for this. Wages could be dramatically lifted without significant impact on the price of clothes: “Deloitte Access Economics estimates that on average just 4% of the price of a piece of clothing sold in Australia goes towards the wages of the workers who made it. Oxfam said if brands absorbed the cost of paying a living wage, it would amount to less than 1% of the garment price.” Instead, Oxfam found in chapter 4 of its report that Australian brands engaged in aggressive tactics to drive down prices (and therefore wages). On the other hand, Oxfam’s scrutiny seems to have had some effect, with a number of brands claiming they will do better. Time will tell.

23 February 2019

This time last year, John Button wrote persuasively in The Monthly that Peter Dutton and Mike Pezzullo had gutted the department of immigration’s nation-building expertise and were rewarded with a paramilitary empire in the new Home Affairs mega-portfolio. Now, Paddy Gourley shows that a year on, Home Affairs has turned out exactly as expected, and needs to be urgently dismantled.

22 February 2019

There are currently two Kickstarter campaigns under way for tabletop roleplaying games about community organising. The first, Beat the Boss, focusses on union organising in an American context, and aims to “create a place for activists to learn how to organize on the job and in the community. With a handful of six-sided dice, a pencil, a character sheet, and a group of friends, you can learn how to move people to action and take back their power.” The second, Comrades, is more dramatic. Set in a fictional “revolutionary underground”, “it pits players against a corrupt government, forcing them to fight from the shadows to free the people from their chains.” Both games use the PbtA system.

21 February 2019

Nathan J Roberts spoke to some of America’s richest high school students, and made an eloquent pitch for socialism: “I’m beginning here, with a basic example of an unjustified inequality, because … for me, that is where the socialistic instinct begins, not with economic theory but with a sense of solidarity, feeling a deep understanding, love of, and sympathy with your fellow human beings in very different circumstances, and wanting nothing for yourself that you do not also want for them. … A socialist is, first and foremost, not just perturbed by injustice, but horrified by it, really truly sickened by it in a way that means they can’t stop thinking about it. It gives you the feeling that ‘we can’t do anything about that’ or ‘that’s just the way of the world’ is not acceptable.” He goes on to explain that the key issues for socialists are inequalities of wealth and power, and that liberalism fails to address deep structural imbalances. Worth a read.

Recently released ABS data showed tiny real wage growth in the past year — but as Greg Jericho points out, “there is a long way to go before we experience anything like what was considered solid or even merely average wages growth.” He notes, “It is now four and half years since real wages grew by 0.5% and six years since they grew by more than 1%.” This trend is baffling market ideologues like the chief economist at CommSec, who says “economists have been left scratching their heads as to why solid jobs growth isn’t translating into stronger wages growth for employees”. It’s no big secret — wages will rise when workers have power, and not before. Jericho concludes: “given there are already noises of concern about wages rising faster under a Labor government, it is worth remembering that wages growth does not happen by accident, and that companies will be happy for the new normal to remain in place — and will campaign strongly against any changes to industrial relations.”

19 February 2019

After posting yesterday’s link about how labour law can make workers vulnerable, I saw this report on Deliveroo’s campaign to have the law changed to suit its particular model of exploitation. UNSW’s Shae McCrystal says Deliveroo is driven by impending judgments that may find it has engaged in sham contracting, and wants to shift the goalposts: “Every time you talk about a third category of worker, a ‘third way’, what you are really talking about is creating a category of worker that is denied the protections of labour law … [with] more grey areas where they get fewer protections and less pay.” The University of Sydney’s Joellen Riley says instead of carving people out of legal definitions of employment, we should be expanding the class of workers who are protected: “I think too much time and legal costs have been wasted in arguing about whether these workers are in fact employees. If we think they should enjoy decent working conditions (and I do) I think it is time we legislated to provide those working conditions directly — not by deeming them to be employees, but by working out an appropriate regulatory regime that would address the exploitative practices in these arrangements.”

18 February 2019

In a chapter of Philosophical Foundations of Labour Law, Virginia Mantouvalou argues that the term “exploitation” needs a broader legal meaning than just slavery and servitude, and should also include taking advantage of workers’ vulnerability. She also calls for governments to be held accountable for “legislation that excludes or treats differently certain groups of workers, making them in this way especially vulnerable to exploitation. That the state has such a role in creating structural conditions of vulnerability to exploitation through law is deeply troubling, given that the employment relation is already a relationship of inequality and subordination.” In Australia, some of the legal structures that increase vulnerability in this way include visa work rules, junior wages, work for the dole and CDP, internships, au pair arrangements, labour hire, and ‘independent’ contracting. Some State governments have begun reviewing small aspects (such as labour hire licensing) but Mantouvalou’s call for a systematic review has merit.