Farewell to the 'fair go'

Howard's 'vision'
Belinda Probert

The Howard government's recently released vision for a 'new workplace relations system' has already generated heated public discussion as different interest groups work through the implications of particular proposals. Some employees, particularly those in Australia's expanding professional and managerial occupations, will conclude that the changes will make little difference to their immediate circumstances, especially as few of them can imagine being summarily dismissed. Women in this category may not even be aware that their current entitlements to things like maternity leave, parental leave, family leave, and reasonable working hours are the result of hard fought test cases brought before the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, which is to be abolished.

A much larger group of employees will conclude that the changes are all designed to permit, or even to encourage, a reduction in the terms and conditions of their employment, and they will worry about this to the extent that they believe their employer may wish to exploit these possibilities. Meanwhile employers have welcomed the reduction of trade union and employee rights and entitlements, for the simple reason that these represent constraints on management prerogative. Those who are competing for skills that are in short supply are unlikely to make much use of the new opportunities to reduce wages or impose longer or unsocial working hours on their staff (though smaller employers will certainly make use of their new freedom to dismiss staff). Other employers - particularly in the service industries - who rely on relatively unskilled labour, or on workers who for other reasons don't feel they live in a 'workers' market' (such as sole parents and young people), will have powerful incentives to begin using Australian Workplace Agreements, under which they can now reduce employee costs by, for example, removing existing penalty and public holiday rates.

Not surprisingly, the media is full of contradictory verdicts on the package. But there is a real danger that in the immediate debate about winners and losers, benefit and costs, we fail to appreciate the larger significance of John Howard's vision. This is particularly so because the government finds itself having to sell what is a revolutionary proposal for Australia to a community that has already been rattled by the most successful trade union advertising campaign ever. As a result, the majority of the individual examples provided in WorkChoices (the recently released guide to the proposed new system) are designed to reassure people that they will lose none of their current entitlements. For the fictional Liljana, Sarah, Claire and Maria, it should be noted, this is conditional on their continuing to be employed under their relevant awards - something the new system is explicitly designed to discourage. Indeed, in parts of the public sector where the new system is already in place, an offer of employment is increasingly contingent on the acceptance of an individual AWA.

Why are these proposals for a 'new workplace relations system' so significant? Because they are designed to bring fundamental change to the way in which Australian wages and conditions of work are negotiated. They will radically alter the institutional framework within which Australia has sought to provide for its citizens' economic security and quality of life. And in doing so, these proposals also seek to redefine the kinds of values and social goals that are given concrete expression in our most important decision-making structures. At the very least our notions of fairness and equity are at stake, and some dimensions of what it has meant to be Australian.

We will all come to this larger debate from particular social positions, and we certainly shouldn't be surprised that the churches have joined in so promptly, despite claims that they have no authority or expertise in the industrial arena. My own concerns stems from a long standing research interest in the ways Australia's workplace relations system has reflected and sustained a distinctive and explicit egalitarianism for most of the twentieth century, and in the ways this system has had to be challenged and reformed to give women equal rights. Australia's evolution as a very distinctive 'wage-earners welfare state' is now well understood, contrasting with the far greater reliance on publicly funded welfare provisions and statutory social protection that is found in other Western democracies.

There was nothing inevitable or pre-determined about this distinctive history. In fact it was the way in which the bitter class warfare of the late nineteenth century was resolved at the time of Federation that allowed the wages system rather than welfare provisions to provide protection against poverty and the extremes of inequality that characterize unregulated market societies.

Australia, the nation, was established in a climate of widely shared values about the national purpose, with specific legislation and public institutions that embodied these values. When Barton, Deakin and Labor leaders spoke about 'fairness' they were talking about the same sort of thing. They meant that the living standards of Australian families should be protected through wage regulation, and in this way all Australians would develop as citizens. Out of the devastating conflict between employers, workers, governments, unions and even police and soldiers, came lasting institutions and practices, not just fine words. Central to these institutions was the system of industrial arbitration. Conflict between employers and employees could not be abolished, as it is inevitable in any market economy. But from 1904 it was to be managed through a judicial process where the claims and counter claims of employers and employees could be heard. There are bosses and there are workers, but in the court they are just parties to a dispute.

The most famous and rightly admired decisions from the Harvester judgement in 1907 on the 'normal needs of the average employee', to equal pay for women in 1969, were not made by economic experts (as proposed in Howard's vision for a Fair Pay Commission). They were the outcome of intense political debate as well as expert advice before the Arbitration/Industrial Relations Commission, producing an agreed community standard on where the balance between competing interests should be drawn, and what were to be non-negotiable rights for the time. When Justice Higgins announced that Australian workers were to be paid a fair and reasonable wage rather than whatever they could extract out of a power struggle with their employer, this most Australian of class compromises was made legitimate. Employers who could not pay a decent wage were not welcome in Australia. A job was to be the key to working-class security.

The subsequent growth and acceptance of trade unions and compulsory arbitration dominates the 20th century workplace relations system, with arbitration establishing legally enforceable minimum wages for most jobs. This was central to Australia's remarkable capacity to integrate great waves of immigrants after the second world war without creating low-wage ghettoes or undermining working class living standards. These are surely factors that rendered urban Australia relatively immune to the intensely divisive politics of One Nation.

The workplace relations system that underpins Australians' welfare has had to undergo significant reform and change, and only sustained community pressure ensures that changing community standards are acknowledged. Historically, fairness did not require that women have equal rights with men in the workplace. But after the 1972 Industrial Relations Commission test case decision on equal pay for work of equal value Australia led the world in having one of the lowest gender pay gaps. It took the United States another thirty years to catch up to our average, while low paid women in the US continue to fare much worse.

Since then, all Australian women (not just those in good bargaining positions) have won the right to such fundamental workplace needs as maternity leave, carer's leave and reasonable hours. They have won these rights because of the organized representation of their interests through the trade union movement, heard in an institution designed to mediate, from society's perspective, between the conflicting interests of employers and employees.

John Howard's proposal for a 'new workplace relations system' seeks to abandon this history and this framework altogether. The most radical measures are: the removal of the AIRC's power to set minimum wages and hear test cases around such topical social concerns as parental leave and unreasonable hours; the clear intention to remove unions as the representative of employee interests both from individual workplaces and from the wage-fixing system more generally; the preference for individual negotiations between individuals and their employer through AWAs; and the proposal that in these negotiations employers may request that even basic longstanding entitlements to annual leave and rest breaks be given up.

In the government's recently released WorkChoices document we are provided with a number of examples to illustrate the impact of the proposed changes. It is Billy who most clearly provides an insight into the larger issues that are at stake. Billy, who appears on page 15, is currently unemployed, but he applies for a full-time job in a clothing store which is currently covered by a federal award. The employer decides not to offer Billy the same conditions as the other employees, but rather to offer him an AWA under which he will not be entitled to the award conditions governing working on public holidays, rest breaks, bonuses, annual leave loadings, allowances, penalty rates and shift/overtime loadings. Billy accepts the offer (which by my calculation would be under $14 an hour) because he 'wants to get a foothold in the job market'. There is no suggestion that Billy has any kind of disability, or anything that would prevent him being as productive as anyone else in the store. Indeed he might be the same person, a few months on, as Doug on page 52, who is made redundant when his job in a shoe factory is automated as a result of new technology. More plausibly, of course, Billy is really Billie (my invention), a single mother returning to the retail workforce, and also anxious to 'get a foothold in the job market'.

The extent of the revolution being proposed could not be more stark, for in the 1960s and 70s Australian women, with the eventual support of the trade union movement, campaigned long and hard to win the principle of equal pay for work of equal value. Yet WorkChoices promotes the idea that Billy and Billie can not only be paid less than their co-workers for the same work, but be made to work harder and longer. It is not fanciful to suggest that the door has been opened for employers to discriminate between male and female workers (or older and younger workers) on the basis of their hunches about what different individuals would be prepared to work for, and this will be perfectly legal - despite thirty years of active campaigning and community consciousness raising to eliminate precisely this behaviour. If employers were required to make their reasons for offering worse conditions explicit this might create opportunities for action under our anti-discrimination laws (though this would only protect Billie, not Billy), but AWAs are not available for public scrutiny, and there is no such requirement for disclosure.

Australians generally now understand very well that women's primary responsibility for the care of children and other family dependents renders many of them vulnerable in the workplace. Working mothers' options are constrained and their bargaining power reduced, and they are concentrated in low paid, part-time and casual employment. They are more likely to be on awards and to be dependent on the AIRC's decisions about safety net standards than men, and minimum wage increases have been central to the protection of this group. Their shared needs and interests have been advanced not through AWAs or even enterprise bargaining (or through statutory provision of basic rights for parents as are to be found in most OECD countries today), but through public debate before the Commission and award protections. The reason that the ACTU's earlier advertisements featuring a mother being called out for work without warning had such an impact is that the scenario is profoundly plausible.

Decisions about which employment conditions should be provided for all workers should not be made by 'experts', or left to individual employers. The question of how low minimum wages should be allowed to fall, what constitute unreasonable hours of work, the conditions under which workers can be dismissed, or what basic rights parents should have in the workplace, are matters for political discussion. There is no 'correct' answer to these questions, and they should not be left to a professor of any kind, even an economist. Let all parties mobilise the strongest research evidence they can find in support of their arguments, but we (Australians) have to decide, through whatever imperfect political mechanisms we have established.

The arguments we have been given for supporting the changes are fairly feeble when looked at in this larger context. It certainly isn't the case that we can't afford to be as concerned with fairness and equity as we used to be. Some of the most successful, small, open economies in the world (like Denmark and Holland) leave us for dead in their insistence on protecting vulnerable employees and supporting parents in the workforce. Australia's major competition is not from low-wage countries like China, but from similar advanced economies who will compete for the trade opportunities created by the rapidly industrializing new economies.

Nor could it be said that these are changes for which there is a popular clamour. It has been suggested that the entry of mothers and students into the workforce, together with the rise of service industries which compete by being available 24/7, means that we no longer have any shared understanding of social and unsocial hours. But my young adult children (paying their way through university) long for the day when they can retrieve their evenings from casual bar work. And West Australians recently voted overwhelmingly against extended trading hours (for reasons that are hard to understand for a recent immigrant).

So, before we abolish the democratic institutions we established to mediate inevitable workplace conflict and establish our particular approach to the protection of fundamental social interests, we should stop and think. Unless, that is, you believe, in Margaret Thatcher's famous words, that 'there is no such thing as society'.

Professor Belinda Probert is Pro Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at the University of Western Australia, and co-editor (with Pat Grimshaw and John Murphy) of Double Shift: Working Mothers and Social Change in Australia (Circa, Melbourne Publishing Group). This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review on 21 Ocober 2005, and is reproduced with kind permission of the author.

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