||Issue No. 323||08 September 2006|
Interview: Australia’s Most Wanted
Industrial: The Fox and the Contractor
Unions: Industrial Wasteland
International: Two Bob's Worth
Economics: National Interest
Environment: The Real Dinosaur
History: Only In Spain?
Review: Clerk Off
Catch a Tube
It's called the Office of Workplace Services and it is emerging as a cross between a media monitoring service and a damage control spin unit, publicly funded but with a sharp partisan political focus.
First a little bit of history. There once was an independent judicial body with real powers that set wages and conditions and ensured workers were treated legally. It was called the Australian industrial Relations Commission but, with WorkChoices, John Howard realised a 20-year dream to 'put a sword through its heart'.
No longer can the Commission determine unfair dismissals for most employees, force employers to the bargaining table or assist parties avoid industrial action. Today, it is a sad shell of its former self, its remaining powers lay in stripping conditions out of awards and threatening massive penalties on workers who take action now deemed illegal.
In its place, the government has established its Office of Workplace Services, with a budget of more than $32 million. The actual role of this body has never been clearly defined, although government bills it as its industrial watchdog.
In fact, more than a month after being promised answers to three simple questions about its role by an agency press officer, Workers Online is still waiting for the information.
What we do know is OWS's job is to enforce WorkChoices, which is a misnomer, in that the laws take away most rights for workers and replaces them with a regime of penalties bosses can use to drive workers from unions.
The real use OWS has been put to is in the field of damage control. From day one, when Cowra Abattoir sackings became news, OWS officers were sent to follow the news.
What emerged was the company decision to take workers head on was deferred until the heat died down, a later OWS ruling confirmed the employer's action in sacking staff and rehiring them at lower rates, was legal under WorkChoices,
The OWS allowed the government to deflect attention, buy time, then greenlight the controversial tactics as "perfectly legal".
Over recent months, the OWS has continued this modus operandi.
An example close to home. Workers Online posted a story about a Korean worker threatened with deportation after having his fingers chopped off. First thing Monday, the OWS was on the line asking for details it could follow-up.
Another example this week. A Chinese guest worker on slave wages and conditions - paying an immigration agent $10,000 of his salary - makes multiple complaints to the OWS. No joy, until unions break the story in the media.
It continues this week: workers are fined a week's salary for placing overtime bans - on the legal advice of the firm that actually wrote the law -the OWS is investigating; workers locked out for refusing to sign individual contracts - the OWS will have a look.
So what good an OWS investigation? Well on the evidence to date, the OWS goes and talks to the employer, gets their side of the story, and then briefs the Minister - who bodgies the briefings into 'investigations' and leaks them to the media.
In this way the wheels of workplace justice may be spinning, but they are not delivering anything other than damage control for a Minister who continues to deny the new ground rules of the Australian workplace.
It is a short term strategy straight out of Orwell. Create a public bureau that looks like a legal enforcement body, use it for political purposes and hide behind it when the going gets tough.
As for the OWS investigators, we look forward to your call on Monday
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