Democracy under threat from IR changes, says Combet

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Democracy under threat from IR changes, says Combet

Australia’s democratic traditions and ethos of fairness are threatened by the Federal Government's proposed industrial relations changes, ACTU Secretary Greg Combet has told the National Press Club.

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Australia’s democratic traditions and ethos of fairness are threatened by the Federal Government's proposed industrial relations changes, ACTU Secretary Greg Combet has told the National Press Club.

‘We have a strong economy and a solid record of respect for workers rights, both of which have contributed to the success and international recognition of our democracy,’ Combet said.

‘But these rights, these democratic traditions, and our ethos of fairness, are threatened by the industrial relations changes announced by the Howard Government.’

Exploitation of workers

Combet said the changes will massively benefit business at the expense of workers and their families.

‘They open the door to exploitation of working people and the abuse of power by business,’ he said. ‘They will deepen inequality in our society. They are in breach of the ILO conventions. They will undermine the role of unions in our democracy.’

Combet said the government is proposing to remove from more than 3.6 million workers any protection from unfair dismissal.

‘The government’s unfair dismissal exemptions will apply to all businesses with 100 or less staff - that is 99% of Australian companies,’ he said.

‘To the extent that there are legitimate problems with the current unfair dismissal system they could and should be addressed. But to abolish this protection for employees altogether is unwarranted. It will worsen job security and not surprisingly is overwhelmingly unpopular.’

Bargaining changes - conditions at risk

Combet said the government is also proposing to fundamentally change the rules for agreement making and bargaining in every Australian workplace.

He said no employee can presently be put on an individual or collective agreement that disadvantages them compared to their award.

However the government proposes to abolish this test and replace it with just five minimum conditions:

  • minimum wages starting at $12.75 per hour;
  • annual leave (two weeks of which may be ‘cashed out’);
  • sick leave;
  • hours of work; and
  • unpaid parental leave.

‘It means that a host of employment rights will be at risk - redundancy pay, overtime, shift work penalty rates, weekend and public holiday pay rates, work rosters, work and family rights, annual leave loading, casual loading, allowances, skill based pay increases, and a host of other award standards will be able to be removed from employees without compensation,’ Combet said.

‘The dramatic reduction in the safety net will impact most harshly on the most vulnerable. Employees in a weak bargaining position will lose take-home pay.’

Problem with AWAs

Combet said the inherent problem with AWAs is that individual employees do not have equal bargaining power with their employer.

‘Individual contracts can be used by employers to dictate the terms of employment and exercise unilateral decision making,’ he said.

‘That is why collective bargaining is an internationally recognised right. It provides a balance of power in the workplace and ensures fair treatment. It facilitates a fairer share of profits and benefits from productivity gains for employees, thereby improving living standards.

‘It enables employees to have a genuine democratic voice, to be treated with respect and dignity.’

Combet said that in recent years individual contracts have often been used to destroy collective bargaining, undermine union representation, and cut pay and employment conditions.

‘All of this will get worse when the government’s laws are passed,’ he said.

‘Under the new laws cutting pay and employment conditions will be simple - the employer need only offer employment on the basis of an AWA containing the five minimum standards. If an employee doesn’t like it they can look elsewhere.’

Combet said the suggestion that individual contracts are sought by employees and negotiated individually is absurd.

‘AWAs are presented almost always in identical terms for every employee in a workplace - terms established by the employer,’ he said.

Market forces

Combet said that in a competitive commercial environment, employers will take advantage of the dramatic reduction in safety net protection to drive down costs wherever they can.

‘It will only take one company in a particular market and the others will follow in order to stay in business,’ he said.

‘Overall, Australian workers will have worse collective bargaining rights than in any other advanced economy I can think of.’

Combet said the government’s industrial relations package is ‘a tawdry, distasteful affair’.

‘It lacks humanity and it will set Australia on a path of widening inequality and exploitation,’ he said.

Full Speech

Combet’s full speech can be read at the ACTU website.

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Federal IR changes
 

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