||Issue No. 146||26 July 2002|
Crean-ite Is Not A Dirty Word
Interview: Trans Tasman
Cole-Watch: The Full Story
Unions: The Right To A Life
Bad Boss: Phoenix Rising
Politics: The Virtuous State
International: The Champions
History: Mandatory Mums
Corporate: Network Governance
Review: Navigating The Doublespeak
Satire: Hector The Galah Found Hiding
Poetry: Eight Days a Week
The Locker Room
Week in Review
Kangaroo Court Horrifies Reader
Site Reunites Redundant Workers
Carr Off Course
The Banners of Greed
Join The Party
Shocks and Stares
The Right To A Life
Long hours is a white hot issue in the workplace and the ACTU's Reasonable Hours case gives unions a pointer to a core responsibility and a touchstone issue to mobilise around.
Over the last year different ACTU research into workplace issues has found the same thing: long hours and the intensification of work is the overwhelming primary concern of workers. Not pay or OHS, not 60:40 nor Tony Abbott nor the Unfair Dismissal laws. Not the Workplace Relations Act nor the Building Royal Commission nor the Living Wage. These issues at the centre of media, political and union debate barely register on the radar of working people. The research consistently reveals the sense of self-destruction many people feel about work and its increasing intensity. ACTU researchers have been amazed at the passion and pain it evokes across all demographics - blue collar/white collar, young and old, men and women.
We can assume from the response of Tony Abbott to this week's decision in the Reasonable Hours case when he grudgingly complimented the ACTU for running the case and the positioning of the Liberals on work and family issues over the last month that Liberal research is telling them the same thing.
The extent to which Australia's long hours culture is killing our families is horrifying. The ACTU's 50 Families Report - part of the Reasonable Hours case submission - painted a terrifying picture of family destruction and suffering. Suicidal tendencies, depression, family breakdowns and destructive consequences for our kids was widespread.
It's now a right to say no
For those whose eyes glaze over at the sight of a legal document the significance of the AIRC's decision in the Reasonable Hours case this week was not immediately obvious. But on closer inspection the result is a landmark.
The big change arising from the decision is subtle but significant - rejecting overtime is now the right of an employee rather than a responsibility left to the employer.
While the Commission passed on the ACTU's claim for a remedy of days off for workers who worked beyond these guidelines it came up with an alternative that gives union members scope to act to improve their working lives.
The Commission accepted the ACTU's argument that workers should have the right to refuse overtime if it is unreasonable because of family responsibilities or risks to health and safety.
This means workers can legally refuse overtime where it would lead to unreasonable hours without fear of losing their jobs.
ACTU Assistant Secretary Richard Marles, who ran the ACTU's case in the commission, says the result provides union members with solid backing to reverse an obnoxious trend in play for the last twenty years.
'During that time workers have lost control over their own lives as more and more time and energy is handed over to the boss with longer and longer hours and greater intensification of work,' he says.
'Before employers could work people beyond reasonable time. This decision gives a limit, employees can now shut the door.'
A problem no longer hidden
Equally significant in the AIRC's decision was its acknowledgement as fact the large body of evidence presented by the ACTU which painted Australia as a working hours disaster. Employers and the Federal Government had both denied in extensive evidence that any such problem existed.
The extent of this disaster is worth repeating:
· Australians are working more hours than in any other country in the OECD bar one
· 2.4 million Australians work more than 45 hours a week
· 1.6 million work more than 50 hours
· Average weekly hours has increased by 3.7 hours since 1982
· A quarter of full time employees are not paid for an average of 2.7 hours per week
· A third of Australian workers work hours that would be deemed illegal in Europe
A serious challenge for unions
Richard Marles says for a hundred years up to 1947 when the 40 hour week was won, Australia led the world in fair working time. Each union campaign actually led to a decrease in the hours worked by Australian workers.
'But in 1980 Australia started to buck the trend and hours began to grow. We became one of the few countries in the world where the average hours of work started increasing.'
'Ironically this occurred despite the advent of the 38 hour week in 1983. Twenty years on it is clear the 38 hour week was a defacto wage increase rather than about reducing hours of work.'
'Now the union movement has to take responsibility for the future. We have to be serious about reducing the amount of time workers spend at the workplace. If we don't we are failing in our responsibility to our constituency.'
Another dent in the Government's slash and burn agenda
Richard Marles says a little recognised consequence of the Reasonable Hours decision is how the commission has painted itself back into the industrial relations landscape.
'Although the union movement didn't get all it was after we've still being given an award standard. It is the first arbitrated test case since Howard came to power in the face of substantial efforts by the Federal Government and employers in opposing our case. By asserting its right to establish a standard the Commission has given itself new life and thwarted the Government's attempts to undermine the authority of the independent umpire.'
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