Interview: Head On
Unions: Do You Have a Moment?
Industrial: Vital Signs
Economics: Taxing Times
Environment: It Ainít Necessarily So
History: Melbourneís Hours
Immigration: Opening the Floodgates
Review: Pollie Fiction
Poetry: The Cabal
The Locker Room
The Cowra Clause
Belly Spreads The Word
Lying Lies And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them
Interview with Peter Lewis
Two weeks in, have your worst fears of WorkChoices been realized?
I felt surprised at the speed with which some employers have moved quite so bluntly in exploiting the powers. I would have thought there would have been a little more restraint. I expected this kind of behaviour a little more further down the line but people have itchy fingers on the trigger.
One of the things that the government seems to be saying is that we have new system in place which will enforce reasonableness in the workplace via the Office of Workplace Services. Are there any models anywhere that give any confidence that this sort of approach - it's almost an extra judicial role isn't it?
It's a design fault. They are attempting to empower government officials to make up for a change in the law. The laws allow employers to do certain things to work that lead to unfair outcomes. If this is the case, change the law, don't try and fix it up when some bureaucratic apparatus asks you.
The Workplace Research Centre does a lot of work with employers. What is your general take on their enthusiasm for embracing the new regime?
Mixed really. The employer lobby is openly supporting the government and genuinely so. On the other hand there are quite a number of employers who think the lopsided nature of the laws in terms of restructuring power relations between managers and organized workers is something not typical in Australian public life and are a little troubled by that. And there are a lot of people who are just plainly confused and still trying to figure out what it all means.
The scenario that you set out before the laws were enacted was that we would see a slow erosion of standards rather than a head on attack. Are you changing your view?
My view was that it was always going to be a highly uneven process. Employer militants would lead the charge in certain industries, but would we said has come true. There hasn't been a generalized assault on the workforce across all sectors. There has been a few localized pockets that have attracted a lot of media attention.
It would not surprise you that the meat industry is one area where there are those sorts of employers?
My colleague Chris Briggs has done a lot of work on employer militancy and that shows that rural manufacturing, especially meat processing, has been at the forefront of testing anti-worker aspects of labour law since 1996 at least. That is set to continue.
What other sectors would you be keeping your eye on over the next six months?
Obviously the big round coming up is metal engineering. Construction is reaching a critical point. I think there are rumbles around some parts of the finance sector - all the big instrumentalities. A sleeper, I think is the retail sector and we all know that in hospitality there will be a whole raft of those employers who will try to exploit the new laws. But I think it will be of interest to see what happens in retail, because Australian retail workers are amongst the best paid in the world, relative to their colleagues in other industries and occupations. They only enjoy that by virtue of the award system. And as the award system becomes vulnerable there are major opportunities there for employers to realign the old punitive.
Now, we might be getting a bit ahead of ourselves here, but there is already debate about what response the unions and Labor should be putting forward and a lot of talk around the idea of recognition ballots and collective bargaining rights. Do you have any take on that?
Well, Chris Briggs has done some important research in that area and shown that recognition ballots on their own are of limited effect and the really critical issue is the question of multi employer bargaining. So it is not a matter of getting recognition at enterprise level, it is a matter of getting recognition across enterprises to ensure standards prevail which ensure civilized practices prevail in workplaces. That is the key problem. But it is a bit of a second order issue I think.
Explain a bit more your idea of multi employer recognition. How would that work?
In the setting of standards - and you see elements of this in say, both transport where there is a whole lot of contractors, and there is a contract determination which holds that certain standards must be maintained on earnings and hours, and these standards prevail whether the workers are casual, permanent, contractors or employees. That is the kind of model that you should be looking at. Standards that apply across the labour market to all workers, not technically defined instruments that only apply to a particular part of the workforce.
So, say in an industry like hospitality, would it be do-able?
Anything is do-able, if you have got the political will. The State government in particular controls licensing arrangements. You could find the employers in hospitality are not sticking to basic standards then they lose their licenses. The question of sanctions will clearly delermine whether compliance will increase and I think that when we are looking at raising labour standards we have got to increase the sanctions. The government has already sent that signal out in WorkChoices. The sanctions against employees are very high, and I don't see why that position shouldn't continue.
And what about the notion of government procurement. Does that have a place in your jigsaw?
Well, yeah, but I think that is just part of a broader way of thinking. We have got to deal with the reality of supply chains and production networks and the reality of network arrangements in service delivery. That's networks of economic activity that shape the way people work these days, and government procurement is one part of that because that is essentially part of the supply chain, but government procurement alone will not be adequate, you have got to look at all issues around network production and supply chain arrangements.
So, if you were offering friendly advice to the union movement over the next three months, where would you be putting your energy?
I think they have got it just about right at the moment. These laws are so repressive they can't have a full on frontal assault because they will just get annihilated - that would be a heroic defeat.
John Buchanan is director of Sydney's University's Workplace Research Centre
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