Interview: Australia’s Most Wanted
Industrial: The Fox and the Contractor
Unions: Industrial Wasteland
International: Two Bob's Worth
Economics: National Interest
Environment: The Real Dinosaur
History: Only In Spain?
Review: Clerk Off
Justice, Applied Liberally
The Fox and the Contractor
In 2003, Max Catania, a Foxtel installer was called in to "renegotiate" his contract with Siemens Thiess.
The offer on the table was the same for all techs - instead of being paid $43.93 per job, they would get $35.
Catania could not believe his eyes. He had been doing it tough since being retrenched by Telstra and having to become a contractor.
As part of cost-cutting during the 1990s, Telstra had sacked all its Foxtel installers, who were taken on as subcontractors by companies contracted to do their old work.
As a subbie, Catania found himself paying for his own workers' compensation, public liability insurance, petrol and equipment. Sick leave and annual leave had disappeared.
Now Telstra was demanding cheaper rates from its contractors and they were responding by slashing the earnings of subcontractors.
Catania estimated Siemens Thiess's offer would cut his income by $540 a week.
"We had to decide there and then, accept the contracts and accept the rates," Catania said. "There's always the threat of do it or you don't get any work."
But Catania was not alone. Other subbies were equally outraged.
"We were dying as individuals, it was just one person against these multinational companies," Catania said.
They took their anger to the union. Many had previously been members of the CEPU and now they felt they had no one else to turn to.
Through word of mouth, subcontractors were organised into taking a stand against the rate cut.
In NSW and Victoria, almost 200 subbies went on strike. They used their vans - which they were forced to buy when Telstra dumped them- to mount blockades against the telco.
Catania was amazed by the willingness of the subbies to band together.
"These companies put in a lot of effort making sure we can't contact anyone. They never have meetings where everyone is involved, and they divide us into teams and make sure one team never meets up with another team," he said.
The subbies actions paid off and they were able to pressure the companies into dropping the new contracts.
But while they had been able to salvage about $500 of their weekly earnings, they were still on contract and missing out on entitlements afforded regular employees, including increases to keep up with the cost of living.
With the price of petrol starting to bite, Catania says the squeeze is back on.
Further action was possible in June this year, when Foxtel's contracts with Siemens-Thiess (now Silcar) and the other cable installation company, ABB, were due to expire.
But Foxtel extended the contracts for six months, despite rumours it was going to give the contracts to other companies.
Foxtel's move came shortly after the Howard Government confirmed it would introduce an Independent Contractors Act to prevent people like Catania being represented by unions.
The Liberal Party went into the 2004 election with the stated policy to drive unions out of the affairs of contractors and subcontractors.
Under the guise of protecting "independent contractors", it seeks to remove them from the industrial relations system and give supremacy to the contract.
When fulfilled, this policy would prevent unions from representing contractors and subcontractors at the Australian Industrial Relations Commission.
At a speech at the conservative Sydney Institute last year, John Howard explained the policy.
He told assembled business leaders "independent contractors" should not be deemed employees and should be free from award conditions and unions.
Howard spoke of the "enterprise worker" - who had "embraced the independence and flexibility of working for themselves".
Driving this policy is a shadowy group with close ties to business cheerleader, the Institute of Public Affairs.
Independent Contractors of Australia claims to "protect the rights of independent contractors to be treated fairly, justly and equitably".
The group and the Howard Government share remarkably similar views on contractors and the future of contracting in Australia.
In a submission to a Parliamentary Inquiry, last year, the organisation called for contractors to be removed from the industrial relations system.
Its submission stated:
"Independent contractors are, by definition, people who want and have achieved independence in their thoughts and actions in their working lives. They have adopted business attitudes as their working life's motivations. They accept the disciplines of the commercial contract, in which they exercise equal rights to control the terms of their contract/s, as the process by which they organise their work."
Independent contractors, it said, had broken free of the employment relationship and had no need for the shackles of things such as holidays, sick leave and long-service leave.
On his way to another job, Max Catania says he has never done it so tough.
Since the father of two started contracting he has been working between 7am and 7pm, six days a week.
"You'd think after ten years you'd be sitting pretty, but I'm in more debt than ever," says Catania, who is burdened with a mortgage, leases and credit cards.
"I get helped out by family and friends and I live off credit cards. I'm always hoping it's going to get better but it doesn't seem to.
"They say we're all individuals, and everyone is given the exact same rates - no one negotiated anything. All this individual negotiation is a bunch of baloney."
Who Wants Their Foxtel?
50 per cent Telstra, 25 per cent Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, 25 per cent Kerry Packer's PBL.
The History Channel
1995 - Foxtel is launched as a joint venture between Telstra and News Corp. Installation work performed by Telstra employees.
1996 - Telstra starts laying off technicians, who are offered contracts with new installation companies.
1998 - PBL buys half of News Corp's stake in Foxtel.
2003 - Following pressure from Telstra to reduce costs, Siemens Thiess and ABB offer cable installers contracts with a 20 per cent reduction in payments.
2004 - Foxtel rolls out its Digital platform. Cable and satellite installers band together around issues of payment and training. Strikes force the company's hand.
2006 - Howard Government announces Independent Contractors Act. Foxtel extends contracts with Silcar (Siemens Thiess) and ABB for six months.
Out of the Shadows
Ties between lobbyists for new contractor laws at Independent Contractors of Australia (ICA), the Howard Government and big business run deep.
ICA refuses to identify members or reveal sources of finance.
Only four individuals have been publicly identified as having links with the group. None are Foxtell installers, or ever likely to be.
The founder of ICA, in fact, is a prominent employer who stands to benefit from the erosion of contractors' living standards and, for good measure, heads up an employer peak body.
Each of the four is a political activist, dedicated to extreme "free market" ideology. Known ICA members, or supporters, are:
Angela MacRae. The ICA chairwoman, describes herself as"passionate about the needs and rights of businesses". An economist, she worked for the Prime Minister's Office, and was a member of a Treasury Taskforce that recommended denying super to low-income Australians.
Bob Day. The multi-millionaire owner of Homestead Homes, Collier Homes, Ashford Homes, Newstart Homes and Huzley Homes - founded the ICA to "represent" independent contractors. He doubles as chairman of the peak employer body, the Housing Industry Association (HIA).
Day is on the board of the Centre for Independent Studies. His theories are published by the HR Nicholls Society.
Ken Phillips. Director of the Workplace Reform section of right wing think-tank, the Institute of Public Affairs. The Institute, which is closely linked to the Liberal Party, gets donations from a range of big businesses, including Telstra. Phillips is the ICA's executive director.
Don D'Cruz. The former "senior fellow" with the Institute of Public Affairs is the ICA's media contact. His commentaries are carried by pro-business outlets in Australia and overseas, including the Competitive Enterprise Institute of the US. D'Cruz describes aid organisations such as Oxfam as "disgraceful".
The CEPU is calling on D'Cruz and his fellow travellers to come clean with Australians.
Organiser, Shane Murphy, said the ICA should reveal how it was funded and who it represented.
"These people are well connected - to government and big business - but nobody knows who they are or who funds them," Murphy said.
Murphy said unions are required, by law, to publish finance and membership lists and the ICA should do the same - in the interests of a level playing field.
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