Interview: Public Defender
Legal: Craig's Story
Unions: Wrong Way, Go Back
Politics: Queue Jumping
History: Iron Heel
Economics: Waging War
International: Under Pressure
Poetry: Billy Negotiates An AWA
Review: A Pertinent Proposition
The Locker Room
Truth in Advertising
What a Woman!
It's Not Pretty
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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