One year on, but the WorkChoices battle still rages

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One year on, but the WorkChoices battle still rages

The first year of WorkChoices has ended with as much bitterness and division as it began.

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The first year of WorkChoices has ended with as much bitterness and division as it began.

However, the difference is that it is no longer John Howard and Kevin Andrews versus Kim Beazley and Stephen Smith, as it was at the beginning. Now it is Howard and Joe Hockey against Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. And the polls show Howard is facing the biggest political threat of his life, with industrial relations a key issue.

On the anniversary today the opposing forces lined up to support their historical position, as expected.

Defying the critics

Business is still backing WorkChoices strongly.

'One year on, the Government's WorkChoices reforms are defying the critics,' Ai Group Chief Executive, Heather Ridout, said. 'When you look at employment, at industrial disputation and the strength and discipline of real wage growth you would have to say that WorkChoices is delivering positive outcomes for Australia.

'There are clearly challenges for government and business in communicating the benefits of the reforms. But the record speaks for itself, and given the important advances that have been made it is vital that the reforms not be wound back.'

Economic imperative

NSW's largest business group, NSW Business Chamber, said that the first year of WorkChoices has demonstrated the economic imperative of a flexible workplace relations system.

'263,000 new jobs, real wages growth of 1.5%, a 25% fall to long term unemployment and the lowest industrial disputes on record all point to a system delivering on increased workforce participation and productivity', said Kevin MacDonald, CEO of NSW Business Chamber. 'The biggest change has been in small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) who no longer fear employing people because of the abuses that used to occur by employees exploiting the unfair dismissal system.

'SMEs are willing to employ people — they now see it as a positive sign of their business growing, rather than a business risk that could jeopardise their savings.'

Not in our interest to scrap AWAs

MacDonald said Labor had yet to explain why scrapping up to one million AWAs will be in the national interest.

'They have not explained why it is in Australia's interest to scrap AWAs where employers are paying wages significantly above the relevant award, or indeed paying wages significantly higher than average weekly earnings,' he said.

The unions, of course, take a different view.

Hurting families, says ACTU

The ACTU this week issued a report showing that after a year of WorkChoices the new IR laws are hurting Australian working families.

The report claimed:

  • Job security for Australian workers has been eroded — with 3,761,000 Australian workers employed in businesses with fewer than 100 staff having lost any protection from being unfairly dismissed.
  • Work conditions are being cut by AWA individual contracts - 1,000 Australian workers a day are being pushed onto AWAs, and the Federal Government's own survey shows that every new AWA is cutting at least one so called 'protected award condition' and that 51% cut Overtime Loadings, 63% cut Penalty Rates, 46% cut Public Holidays pay, 52% cut Shift Work Loadings, and 40% cut Rest Breaks.
  • Workers on AWAs are also being paid less than workers on collective agreements — workers on AWAs earn an average 90 cents an hour less than workers covered by collective agreements (non-managerial workers).
  • Wage rises for all full time workers have fallen behind the rising cost of living — compared to the rate of inflation total average earnings for full-time adult workers have dropped by 0.6% over the past 12 months since the new IR laws came into effect.
  • Many workers on AWAs are working longer hours.

This view was backed up in a report by Professor David Peetz, Professor of Industrial Relatioons at Griffith University, produced with the support of the Victorian Department of Industrial Relations.

Damaging assertions

This report makes a number of damaging assertions, including that the number of AWAs claimed by the Government is considerably inflated, and that female workers are particularly disadvantaged by WorkChoices.

However, Minister Hockey today described the first anniversary of WorkChoices as 'an important day for Australian workers'.

'We now have a modern workplace relations system which is delivering higher wages, more jobs, and flexible working hours thanks to these reforms,' he said.

Good news stories

'We hear ad nauseam from the union leaders about the so-called losers from these changes, but they conveniently cover-up the good news stories where people now have working conditions which suit them rather than being handed take-it-or-leave-it union awards which have no relevance to their working conditions today.'

However, NSW IR Minister, John Della Bosca, put out a statement claiming new record-keeping requirements for employers under WorkChoices would cost NSW employers $316m per year.

$950m in red tape

'A study by Harmers Workplace Lawyers found this red tape will cost employers $950m nationally and $316m in NSW,' he said.

Della Bosca said that in the last 12 months:

  • ABS data shows average weekly wages in NSW have fallen by $29 a week under Work Choices — that adds up to more than $1500 a year.
  • There have been 250,000 calls to the NSW Office of Industrial Relations, many from workers who have lost wages and entitlements.
  • Average earnings in the private sector have fallen 1.1%.
  • Average earnings for women in the private sector have fallen 1.8%.
  • 99% of all private sector employers can now sack employees without reason.

Countering this view was Howard's statement in Parliament yesterday that 'since WorkChoices was introduced over 263,000 new jobs have been created'.

Real wages up

'Secondly, real wages, that is, the wages that you receive over and above inflation, have risen by 1.5%, taking to 19.7% the real wage rises that have occurred under this Government.

'The ABS has recorded industrial disputes at the lowest level ever recorded, indeed, since statistics began to be collected in 1913.

'We have a 30-year low in unemployment. We have had a massive rise in real wages. We have had historically low industrial disputes. In other words, the individual worker is doing well under this Government.'

Battle continues

Thus the battle continues. The voters will award a points decision in favour of one side or the other at the next election.

ACTU report

Text of the ACTU Report.

Peetz report

Text of the Peetz report.

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