16 December 2020

Ross Gittins: “[O]ne unintended [sic] consequence of the now-ended era of neoliberalism has been to convince our manager class they have a divine right to be given whatever they think necessary to their greater success. Which brings us to the latest batch of ‘reforms’ being proposed by Scott Morrison and his Attorney-General, the misleadingly advertised Christian Porter. … I think we’re getting muddled between means and ends. The business proposition is: if only you’ll let me give my workers a hard time, my business will be more successful and everyone will benefit. If only you’ll accept an insecure job with hours that change from one week to the next according to my needs, the economy will be much better off. But if you take the workers and their dependents out of the economy, you don’t have much left. People rightly crave job security. Make their working lives a misery and a pay rise is poor consolation. (And right now, of course, we can’t afford the pay rise either.) We’re getting the cart before the horse, turning the people who are supposed to be the chief beneficiaries of a good economy into the people who, we’re told, must suffer to bring the good economy about. That’s what needs reform.”

It looks like Morrison might back down on undercutting the Better Off Overall Test, but, as Shaun Carney points out, that isn’t the worst of his IR omnibus: “Wage stagnation is a serious ongoing problem in Australia. Real wages have barely moved in the past seven years. The share of national income that goes to workers has been falling since the 1970s — right now, it’s below 50 per cent for the first time in 60 years — while the profit share has correspondingly been rising. This is hurting low-paid workers and those who are stuck in casual positions especially, and it is needs to be addressed. There isn’t much in the new bill that’s going to turn it around. The proposals do little to deliver greater job security or even create new jobs because they hand employers greater powers to define any employee as a casual and to give part-time workers more hours at cheaper rates than they would get at the moment. … It’s hard to see what the government would have had to lose by going further and offering a better deal for low-paid workers. Certainly, it would have grumpy employer groups to contend with, but where would they and their members go politically — to Labor or the Greens? … In a time when politics is all too often an exercise in marketing, it had been too much to hope for.”

11 December 2020

The Centre for Future Work’s Jim Stanford explains how Morrison wants to use covid as an excuse to ram through a wave of wage-cutting, non-union agreements: “Australia is unique among wealthy nations in allowing employers to unilaterally implement enterprise agreements, without involvement by a union. The BOOT is thus necessary to prevent enterprise agreements from undermining award rights. The bill proposes suspending BOOT for two years. But even if it were restored after that (which is uncertain), agreements approved during that window would remain in effect (enterprise agreements typically last four years). Even after they expire, under Australian law they remain in effect until replaced by a new agreement, or terminated by the FWC — neither of which is likely in a non-unionised workplace. Apparently in anticipation that unions will actively oppose non-BOOT-compliant agreements, the bill also includes measures to speed their approval by the Fair Work Commission. The process must be completed within 21 days (with some exceptions). This will limit the ability of affected workers to learn about and resist their loss of benefits and conditions. Unions will be restricted from intervening around agreements they were not directly involved in negotiating (including intervening against agreements that had no union involvement at all).”

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.”

25 November 2020

The Transport Workers’ Union’s Michael Kaine: “In just the past two months, five delivery drivers have been killed in Australia – the ones we know of since they are not recorded as workplace deaths. The deaths represent the total failure of a system which never should have been allowed to thrive. It’s a system that denies its workers sick leave, the right to challenge unfair sackings, training, protective gear and insurance. It stands as a blatant contradiction of the working conditions generations of Australians fought for. Riders get no minimum pay and are pushed to work at breakneck speed. Yet they have no right to training or proper protective gear. Multinational corporations such as Uber and Amazon promote themselves as shiny and futuristic. Yet they reap billions the same way their industrialists forefathers did: off the backs of vulnerable, voiceless workers. We’ve allowed their gig economy to quietly establish itself as an unregulated, secondary labour market. … Workers need rights that are enshrined in law and an independent tribunal system that can hear their concerns and give them the benefits and protections they need. In New South Wales independent contractors who own their own trucks have long had access to a system which allows them to band together and demand standards for their work, including rates which cover all the costs of their labour and business. There is nothing impenetrable or futuristic about the exploitative model behind delivery apps. Australians have seen it all before and we can sort it out again with just a modicum of political will.”

Matt Wade: “The uber-rich are having a great pandemic. Despite the biggest economic downturn in living memory the Australian Financial Review’s latest Rich List revealed the combined worth of the nation’s 200 wealthiest individuals increased by about 25 per cent compared with last year. … Many of our wealthiest families were able to ride the pandemic storm then reap huge gains from the ‘V-shaped’ rebound in asset prices, led by technology firms. In Australia, some miners have benefited hugely from a China-fuelled iron ore boom. But there’s no V-shaped recovery in the real economy. Millions of workers lost their jobs or watched incomes shrink as the coronavirus outbreak pushed the economy into recession. Almost 1 million Australians are officially unemployed and the economy is still being propped up by government and Reserve Bank emergency measures eight months after the onset of the pandemic. The billionaires’ bonanza at a time of such deep economic crisis begs an important question: will the pandemic leave us a more unequal society?“ We will, because that is what we have chosen. Morrison has deliberately pushed people back into poverty, and now — egged on by the usual ideologues [$] — he is planning another attack on workers’ rights.

24 November 2020

Rebecca Solnit: “Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito just complained that ‘you can’t say that marriage is a union between one man and one woman. Now it’s considered bigotry.’ This is a standard complaint of the right: the real victim is the racist who has been called a racist, not the victim of his racism, the real oppression is to be impeded in your freedom to oppress. And of course Alito is disingenuous; you can say that stuff against marriage equality (and he did). Then other people can call you a bigot, because they get to have opinions too, but in his scheme such dissent is intolerable, which is fun coming from a member of the party whose devotees wore ‘fuck your feelings’ shirts at its rallies and popularized the term ‘snowflake.’ Nevertheless, we get this hopelessly naive version of centrism, of the idea that if we’re nicer to the other side there will be no other side, just one big happy family. … But the truth is not some compromise halfway between the truth and the lie, the fact and the delusion, the scientists and the propagandists. And the ethical is not halfway between white supremacists and human rights activists, rapists and feminists, synagogue massacrists and Jews, xenophobes and immigrants, delusional transphobes and trans people. Who the hell wants unity with Nazis until and unless they stop being Nazis?”