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November 2005   

Interview: Public Defender
The CPSU's Stephen Jones has confronted the Howard Government's IR agenda at close quarters.

Legal: Craig's Story
An inquest in western NSW is a cautionary tale of the use of AWAs, writes Ian Latham

Unions: Wrong Way, Go Back
The WorkChoice legislation sends Australia down the wrong economic road by smashing the instittutions that have made it strong, argues Greg Combet.

Industrial: WhatChoice?
The Howard Government has shown itself to be the master of illusion, writes Dr Anthony Forsyth

Politics: Queue Jumping
The changes to industrial laws, betray a new vision of Australian society, writes James Gallaway.

History: Iron Heel
Conservative governments using laws to take away basic civil rights. It's nothing new, writes Rowan Cahill

Economics: Waging War
When was the last time you heard an Australian politician talk about incomes policy, asks Matt Thistlethwaite

International: Under Pressure
The push for UN intervention in Burma is intensifying, following a report by Vaclav Havel and Bishop Desmond Tutu into slave labour.

Poetry: Billy Negotiates An AWA
More and more people are meeting Billy, the hero of page 15 of the WorkChoices booklet, including our resident bard, David Peetz

Review: A Pertinent Proposition
Nick Cave's "Australian western" touches on some themes still relevant today, Julianne Taverner writes.


The Soapbox
Men and Women of Australia
What makes a perfect speech? Michael Fullilove has scoured Australian history to find out.

The Locker Room
The Hungry Years
Phil Doyle gets the feeling we’ve been here before

From Little Things
Paul Kelly's song about the battle for land rights misses one important character, writes Graham Ring

The Westie Wing
Ian West takes a look at Public Private Partnerships, and wonders if we should all just drink rum…


Terror Laws
It was poetic really, the WorkChoices legislation, all 1,000 plus pages of it, introduced into Federal Parliament this week under the cloak of terror.


 D-Day For Political Rights

 Bosses In Sack Race

 “Choice” By Decree

 Howard Barges Into Workplace

 Della Grounds Boeing

 Wal-Mart Sees the Light

 Libs Chicken Out

 Shame Ships Filch Fish

 Multis Line Up to Cheer

 Feds in Dock

 Santoro Waves Red Rag

 Activist's What's On!

 We're Next
 Australia, 2005
 Truth in Advertising
 Investment Advice
 What a Woman!
 It's Not Pretty
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Craig's Story

An inquest in western NSW is a cautionary tale of the use of AWAs, writes Ian Latham


For the last two weeks, a group of lawyers have been cramped into Griffith Local Court trying to determine the cause of death of a young man called Craig McLeod and his employer Mr Anton Beytell at Lake Cargelligo near Grffith,.

Craig was a young man from Port Pirie in South Australia. We know that he was working on the roof of a water tower that collapsed. We know that he was killed in the collapse. We don't know yet why the collapse occurred. The coroner who is running the inquest will determine that issue.

But what we do know already is that Craig McLeod 'negotiated' his salary and conditions individually with Anton Beytell. This is the process that John Howard wants to move all workers into. He says that it is an employee's market. He says that workers can negotiate successfully on their own behalf. Maybe he is right for merchant bankers in Sydney. He certainly wasn't right in relation to Craig McLeod.

Craig wasn't unskilled. He was a boilermaker by trade. But work was short and Beytell's offer of $25 per hour plus accommodation and food probably sounded pretty good. In practice, the promises were just that. He was paid a flat rate of $25 regardless of when he worked. He worked at least 50 hours a week. He didn't get paid overtime. He didn't get paid more for working on weekends. He didn't get paid super. He didn't get leave. He often didn't get paid. His expenses often didn't get paid. By the end, he couldn't afford to ring his family in South Australia. He was concerned that the site was unsafe. But he couldn't leave. He was stuck there until the job finished and Mr Beytell paid up. Before Beytell paid up, they were both dead. It was only after the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union got involved that his estate was finally paid.

His co worker Steve Malothane was even worse off. He was on a lower rate than Craig. He slept on a piece of cardboard in the laundry of Beytell's flat. Beytell would often leave him without money for food. Craig would pay for it himself.

Craig's family have sat through the inquest. They know that Craig won't be going to any more Port Adelaide games with them. But they do want to make sure that what happened to Craig doesn't happen to someone else's son. And one of their complaints is that there was no one at Lake Cargelligo looking after Craig. He was all alone.

As I watch the TV in Griffith, I am constantly told how workers will be protected by law in the new industrial system. But I am a lawyer who works in the industrial courts and tribunals and I know how expensive it is for workers to run cases themselves. I know the delays built into the court system in cases where people want to get on with their lives. I know how hard it can be for people in a witness box with skilled cross examiners. I know how difficult it is for workers to run cases knowing that many other employers will refuse to employ them because they think that they are trouble makers.

The thing that I know most of all is that most workers are not merchant bankers in Sydney. They are people like Craig who are given a take it or leave it offer. If they knock back the job, there are many behind them in the queue for work. They have little or no bargaining power. The one thing that they have, at least in some workplaces, is the right to bargain as a group. They know that they won't be picked off individually. They have, at least in some workplaces, a union that they can deal with in relation to underpayment issues and to safety.

John Howard wants to change this. He talks about providing a better balance. He talks about making it much simpler for employers and employees to get together, talk and work out the workplace arrangements that best suit them. He talks about how employers won't be able to apply duress to force people onto individual agreements. He doesn't say that making an Australian Workplace Agreement (an AWA) a prerequisite for new employees doesn't constitute duress. He also doesn't say that there have only been a handful of prosecutions for duress being applied and that the legal costs in such cases are in the tens of thousands of dollar even though the maximum penalty is $10 000. And he doesn't say that Craig McLeod would have had no right to take an unfair dismissal case under his proposed laws because Beytell employed less than 100 workers. He doesn't say that the capacity of unions to do their jobs will be seriously constrained.

I don't remember these changes being raised in the last election. I don't remember being asked to vote for them. But if they become law, they will have a big effect in Australia's workplaces. They will mean that people like Craig McLeod will have even less power and that people like Anton Beytell will have even more. That might be simpler but I doubt that it will be fairer. And I have no doubt that there will be more families like the McLeods whose children are forced into dangerous and underpaid jobs. I hope, but doubt, that Craig's story won't have to be told again.

Ian Latham is a Sydney barrister


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