archive: December 2020

9 December 2020

Bernard Keane and Glen Dyer [$]: “In a clear triumph of right-wing ideology and business self-interest over economic growth and the advice of the Reserve Bank, the government intends to directly undermine wages growth by locking in what will amount to a ‘worse off overall’ test for the next two years for workers. That’s the proper name for Christian ‘Public Bar’ Porter’s proposal to allow businesses to cut wages in enterprise agreements based on a vague ‘public interest test’ — with workers knowing they can be pushed back to award minimums if they fail to agree to them. While references to Workchoices and its return have been a dime a dozen for the past twelve years, this proposal is straight from that ill-starred Howard government reform program that saw wages cut and labour productivity slump. … What level of wages growth is low enough for the government? It’s nearly down to 1% now. Does it want zero wages growth? Does it want negative wages growth? … It is workers and households that have been the heroes of the recovery. While business has hidden in its bunker, Australians have endured lockdown, complied with often draconian restrictions on their freedom, then emerged to get back to work and start spending in exactly the way the government has urged them to. Their reward for that? Workchoices 2.0, designed to undermine their wages and further tilt the industrial relations playing field in favour of employers. It’s vicious, ideological and idiotically self-defeating.”

Porter’s IR omnibus bill is a predictable grab-bag of attacks on workers

The Morrison/Porter Government’s threatened industrial relations reforms have been released, and as predicted, the round table process was a rope-a-dope strategy designed to provide a veneer of consultation before pressing ahead with an aggressively pro-employer agenda:

  • The business lobby has been livid that the courts pulled the rug out from under their long-running scam of misclassifying regular employees as casuals. The government plans to retrospectively legalise this scam, allowing employers to keep up to $39 billion in previously stolen wages.
  • The government will also introduce a new definition of “casual” worker, but this would still include a sham arrangement where there is in fact “a regular pattern of hours” for up to a year. The bill puts the emphasis on the label used by the employer in setting up the sham arrangement, rather than the reality of the situation. After 12 months before the employee can beg the employer to acknowledge that they are not really casuals — but if the employer refuses at that point, the worker would need to sue them in the Federal Court. Because these sham casual workers have no protection from unfair dismissal, they could be sacked at 11 months without recourse.
  • Some employers — especially in the mining industry — would be allowed to establish so-called “greenfields agreements” (that’s an “agreement” between an employer and hypothetical employees who don’t exist yet) that would apply for 8 years. This is intended to cover the whole life of a project, and would mean the employer could make a take-it-or-leave-it job offer and the workers would never have an opportunity to bargain for improved wages and conditions. The supposed safeguard here is that the so-called “agreement” would need to include a nominal pay rise each year, but this would not need to keep up with pay rises across the economy — even a one cent “pay rise” would satisfy Porter’s scheme.
  • A new classification of “part-time flexi” would allow permanent part-time workers to be “offered” more hours without overtime pay. The risk here is that full-time roles will be replaced with part-time flexi positions, with just 16 hours guaranteed and the rest of the hours effectively converted to casual work without a casual loading. This would put full-time workers at risk of being misclassified as part-time flexi, and then stripped of hours and income without warning, increasing their insecurity and threatening their ability to assert their rights in the workplace.
  • Businesses will be given greater opportunity to circumvent the Better Off Overall Test that protects workers from deals that undercut minimum pay and conditions. The current law already allows this “where the agreement is part of a reasonable strategy to deal with a short-term crisis” — but the new law will apply a broader, looser set of criteria. While the business lobby says this is to allow for the impact of coronavirus, that is only one of the criteria and there is no minimum threshold of impact to trigger the provision. Businesses would have up to 2 years to use this “temporary” exemption, but the conditions set would be locked in indefinitely. This is not an unlikely scenario — many businesses are continuing to legally pay below minimum wage by relying on arrangements they put in place under WorkChoices almost 15 years ago.
  • After his hand was forced by the Migrant Work Taskforce, Christian Porter has agreed to criminalise wage theft — but as predicted, the crime will be defined narrowly so that the vast majority of deliberate wage theft is not included. And while even a single incident of theft by a worker carries a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment around the country, even the few “systemic pattern” wage thieves criminalised by Porter’s scheme will only face 4 years jail.
  • Only the under-resourced, ineffective Fair Work Ombudsman (which recently decided to stop referring criminal matters for prosecution) will be allowed to bring a charge under this provision — Victoria’s Wage Inspectorate, for example, will be locked out. By contrast, State police regularly charge people with other federal crimes if they have sufficient evidence.

Credulous journalists continue to uncritically report farmers’ complaints about “lazy” and “unreliable” workers — meanwhile, research continues to show extreme exploitation is rife in the fruit picking industry: “McKell Institute researcher Edward Cavanough, who co-authored the report for the AWU, says some foreign workers are being paid as little as $3 an hour. ‘If workers were being paid the appropriate rate on these farms, it would be around $24 an hour. We’re very rarely seeing workers get that much,’ Mr Cavanough said. ‘Some of the stories have been absolutely harrowing. A lot of working holiday-makers are having terrible experiences with subcontractors. We’ve seen incidents of workers getting abused, trying to chase money from their employer. These are some of the worst cases of worker exploitation you’ll see in Australia.’ … AWU national secretary Daniel Walton said… ‘We’ve seen worker exploitation with passports being taken, we’ve seen sexual assault and physical violence. The concerning thing for us is that it’s getting worse, not better,’ Mr Walton said.” Strangely, farmers are very quick to contact journalists to make assertions, without evidence, about lazy workers — but they are very hard to pin down when confronted with evidence of exploitation by their contractors: “The ABC contacted three blueberry farms in the Coffs Harbour region for comment but calls were not returned.”

2 December 2020

Rick Morton: “There are 612 private and non-profit nursing homes in Victoria with more than 50,000 beds. Almost 2000 Covid-19 cases were recorded among residents in these homes during the second wave, and they accounted for 655 deaths. A further 1294 infections were acquired by aged-care workers in these facilities. By contrast, in Victoria’s 156 state-run residential aged-care homes, which have more than 5600 beds, there were only three residents who contracted coronavirus and zero deaths. This was an infection rate of 0.1 per cent, compared with more than 6 per cent in the state’s private aged-care network. There is one key difference between the private aged-care market and Victoria’s state-run homes: only the latter has legislated minimum staffing ratios that govern clinical care of residents. … Victoria’s state-run facilities have the highest staffing ratios anywhere in the country. According to research released by the aged-care royal commission, public aged-care homes run by the Victorian government, and a handful in other states, are the best performing in the country in 21 of 24 clinical indicators. They are also the best performing in all 14 of the other quality benchmarks, which include resident feedback and workforce conditions. The royal commission found that, in 2018-19, a total of 119 qualified nursing staff minutes were spent on each resident in each state-run facility every day. This is more than three times what’s spent in the private and non-profit sector, where the Commonwealth requires no minimum staff ratios.”