|Issue No 43||24 February 2000|
Why Global Standards Count!
By Linda Carruthers
Why The Battle To Incorporate 'Core Labour Standards' In Australian Domestic Legislation Is The Most Important Thing We Can Do For Workers Every-Where
I want to argue for the proposition that entrenching collective bargaining rights for all employees in this country is the single most pressing issue facing workers and unions in Australia, and the key to enhancing our capacity to effectively participate in international campaigns to defend democratic rights and living standards for workers everywhere.
The most insidious aspect of the federal Workplace Relations Act 1996 are the thousands of instances of employers' refusal to countenance collective bargaining in workplaces across Australia, and the consequences for those workers of the denial of their right to effective union representation into perpetuity. The capacity of employers to make Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) a condition of employment for new employees, together with the capacity of the employer to refuse to collectively negotiate with an existing workforce will result, in the long term, in unionisation at the pleasure of the employer.
It is simply a fact of life that even the most dedicated and committed unions and activists cannot combat employers who are effectively able to force employees to choose between unilaterally determined contracts of employment, or work for the dole. That is the dirty little secret that underpins the connection between 'welfare reform' and Reith's Workplace Relations Act. Working Australians are now undergoing the full rigours of 'Thatcherism' or more correctly, the neo-liberal agenda pushed by financial markets, with bells and whistles.
While the MUA dispute, together with the Rio Tinto and BHP have raised some of the issues starkly in well publicised disputes, I would argue that the real story is the fact that Australian workers have been stripped of a basic democratic right, recognised since 1947 as the one of the key indications of a liberal democratic nation state. That right is contained in ILO Convention 98,-The Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining. As the title clearly indicates, the right to organise is intimately associated with the rights to collectively bargain. It is clear that Australian workers have been stripped of their rights to collective bargaining, and indeed a recent decision by the ILO committee of experts in response to a complaint brought by the ACTU has confirmed this. What we must grasp is that our capacity to organise, our capacity to build effective and independent unions depends on our capacity to collectively bargain. It is our raison d'etre, our core business, the reason why unions exist. Freedom of Association, is a necessary but insufficient condition for meeting the requirements of an effective union movement.
If you don't believe this, ask workers forced onto AWAs which require them to work any and all hours a week, with no independent representation permitted in respect of workplace disputes whether they value their right to pay a few dollars a week to an organisation which is largely unable to represent them.
The history of the workers movement in the UK, the US, NZ and Australia clearly shows that the capacity of unions to organise on a mass basis, their capacity to recruit and organise the lowest paid and those most in need of collective organisation, exploded subsequent to major changes in the arrangements governing collective bargaining rights, or union recognition as it is sometimes called. There is not the space to go into the details of each country's history, but suffice it to say, there are many countries in our region that have signed up to Freedom of Association provisions where union representatives who seek to bargain with the employer regularly turn up in ditches with holes in vital parts of their anatomy. Whilst I am not suggesting we have reached that stage in Australia, what we have got is a situation where large and growing numbers of working Australians may be legally denied autonomy, respect, dignity and independence for the large part of their waking hours they spend at work.
Australians now find themselves in workplaces under the unilateral control of a fellow citizen, who by dint of federal legislation is able to deal with them in ways redolent of the glory days of the Master and Servant Acts of the 18th and 19th centuries.
What is to be done?
There are many and pressing policy issues facing workers at the moment. Protection of entitlements is one in a list that covers the casualisation of the workforce, the increase in working hours and the externalisation onto workers and their families of all the risks and costs of an unstable economy. All of these issues are important, but in order to tackle them in a way which mobilises and supports independent democratic action by workers themselves, we simply must address the pressing core issue of collective bargaining rights.
I would propose that as a minimum, the labour movement demands federal industrial legislation that provides the following:-
· Incorporation of core International Conventions which protect the rights of workers to join unions, organise workers and to bargain collectively including ILO Conventions 84 and 98 into federal industrial legislation and an explicit reference in the Objects section of the legislation to its purpose of the observation and implementation of these conventions. In addition to these Conventions, the legislation should also clearly incorporate Australia's clear legislative intention to support other core labour standards including the elimination of forced or compulsory labour, child labour and discrimination in employment and occupations.
· A clear and explicit legislative commitment binding Australian tribunals and Courts to international jurisprudence in respect of any judicial consideration of matters arising in respect of the sections concerning international conventions and core labour standards.
· Federal legislation should also make it clear that industrial action in furtherance of these conventions and core standards including action taken in support of their furtherance in Australia, is always, prima facie, legal or protected action and will be taken as action designed to further the objects of the Act.
· Industrial action taken in furtherance of these aims internationally should also be taken to be action taken in furtherance of the objects of the Act and made explicitly immune from sanctions that otherwise may exist for industrial action in certain circumstances.
It may be objected that these demands are too utopian, or on the other hand, that they are a bureaucratic and legalistic solution to the problem.
In brief response to the first argument, it should be obvious that in a context where workers are being constantly lectured of the need to compete in a global market place, employers in Australia are now able to operate in a sheltered workshop designed by Howard's mates to shield them from international norms and standards. Let's have no more of globalism for the bosses and domestic repression for the workers.
In response to the second objection, we may rest assured that the campaign to incorporate these suggestions into industrial legislation will require the full panoply of activities designed to agitate and organise. Whatever the result, we can be sure that the process will be anything but bureaucratic.
The Soapbox is a forum for workers and union officials to discuss contemporary issue. Wander into the Virtual Trades Hall lounge and have your say on this week's issue!
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International: Right Hand Drive
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