Interview: The New Deal
Unions: In the Line of Hire
Culture: Too Cool for the Collective?
International: The Domino Effect
Industrial: A Spanner in the Works
National Focus: Gathering of the Tribes
History: The Welcome Nazi Tourist
Bad Boss: Domm, Domm Turn Around
Poetry: Just Move On.
Review: Reality Bites
The Locker Room
The Secret Life of Us
It Is Still About The Members Isn't It
In the Line of Hire
Heard about the big city airport that wants to flick long-standing staff to contractors who will slash wages by as much as $20,000?
What about the poultry operation in Byron Bay, contracting out its boning operation so it can replace wages with chicken feed and do away with annual leave, ick leave while its about it?
Contracting and casualisation have tilted the workplace balance, allowing employers to slash wages across industries and, often as not, sideline established unions.
Examples abound but you don't need to go beyond Australia's largest and most profitable company, to see how the system works.
Telstra has contracted out vast tracts of its work and not just to independent contractors whizzing around major cities in vans still covered by Telstra livery.
The giant telco has boosted profits by contracting out work at the expense of wages, jobs and conditions.
When it wanted to raise the rate of exploitation from its directory service, for example, it hived off the work to Stellar, a start-up half owned by a US call centre giant.
Stellar hired new staff, paying on average $10,000 a year less than people doing the same work had negotiated with Telstra through union agreements, and instituted a range of born-in-the-USA restrictions on the traditional rights of Australian employees.
These moves, most recently disciplining a pregnant woman for visiting the toilet, have had Stellar in and out of the media ever since but, for it and Telstra, the upside has been the bottom line.
Stellar's trick was to employ on Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott's AWAs, or individual contracts. They were compulsory for anyone who wanted to work there, eliminating in one foul swoop, millions of dollars in wages, existing agreements for the work, and a long-established union presence.
But it is not just in the new economy where contracting and casualisation have slashed earnings, cut hours and increased insecurity.
Contractors have made huge inroads into workplaces as traditional as mines and the public service. Right now, at BHP Steel, and City Sydney Council rows over contracting are spilling into the public domain.
Sydney International Airport Ltd (SACL) is trying to contract out maintenance at the cost of 140 permanent jobs. It made more than $380 million profit in its first year as a privatised entity and intends doubling that figure over its second 12 months.
The Cole Commission into the Building and Construction Industry which published findings last year was, in reality, a study into the effects of contracting out on an industry.
Evidence suggested that not only were going rates and conditions routinely undercut by subcontractors but health and safety regulations and all manner of legal requirements suffered the same fate.
In fact, the ATO fingered construction as a black hole for taxation, home to widespread evasion and other practises that shortchange the public purse by hundreds of millions of dollars.
The contracting-casualisation phenomenon is international but Federal Government's own figures, released by the ABS, show Australia is a world leader.
They indicate that one in four employed Australians - around two million people - rely on casual work. Further, that the number of casuals doubled during the 1990s.
Federal Government often highlights its "success" in creating new jobs but the reality is 60 percent of them have been casual, and that a whopping 80 percent pay less than $26,000 a year.
But the really interesting fact is that Australian casuals are not the itinerant, here today and gone tomorrow, individuals you might suspect. Nor are they doing a few hours, here and there, to pay the golf fees.
Thirty nine percent of casuals employed in Australia today work regular, fulltime hours, without security of tenure.
Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott conceded this fact when he told Parliament the majority of Australian casuals had regular patterns of work and had been employed by the same employer for more than a year.
NSW Labor Council's Chris Christodoulou says this is a key reason behind his organisation's decision to run a Secure Employment Test Case.
Supported by four key unions - the MEU, NUW, CFMEU and PSA - the Labor Council will argue that the IRC should endorse an award clause, that will ...
- entitle regular casuals to opt for permanent employment after six months service with the same employer
- entitle labour hire employees to employment with the host employer after six months doing the same job for the same employer
- commit contracting out employers to full consultation with employees and relevant unions prior to contracting, and to guarantee existing jobs, wages and conditions.
"In the guise of flexibility a lot of employers are shifting their responsibilities. They are doing it to save money, it is a bottom-line approach," Christodoulou says.
"Insecurity has become a major concern for a lot of workers and their families."
Christodoulou says he is aware of permanent employees being denied bank loans, including mortgages, because of their casual status.
Casualisation, he argues, can also be a cloak for stripping away basic, long-established human rights.
"Even the most fundamental rights, such as raising an issue, or grievance, are not being exercised out of fear," he says.
"People in casual employment often don't feel secure in asserting their rights, or even raising valid questions about what is happening in the workplace."
The case, likely to be heard next year, is certain to generate heat from employer groups and a Federal Government which has championed stripping away workplace protections, under the catch cry of "flexibility".
Christodoulou concedes victory would be "significant" because, by its nature, a Test Case has implications across the economy, setting a standard that other unions, or employers, can add to their awards unless, because of specific circumstances, it is deemed inappropriate.
But, he contends, that significance shouldn't be over-stated.
"Having accepted there is some inevitability in this trend to flexibility, we are seeking to write in some basic safeguards for Australian workers and their families. That's all we are asking."
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