Be alert, be aware and join the fight to defend penalty rates

brett ed

When it comes to workers’ rights and living standards the Turnbull government loves to play the politics of the empty gesture. What is needed is meaningful action to protect our standards of living.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he was ‘putting Australians first’ by giving them priority for jobs currently open to overseas workers when he announced the government was abolishing the 457 temporary work visa.

Immediately the ACTU refuted the claim that this was a significant change in policy. ACTU President Ged Kearney, in a comprehensive analysis, pointed out that less than one in ten jobs had been eliminated from the scheme and the requirement to market test for Australian workers’ availability was still left up to the employer.

There is no doubt, nurses and midwives brought to Australia have filled shortages where Australian-educated nurses have either not been encouraged sufficiently to move to or where skill levels have not matched jobs.

It is, however, alarming that the sudden concern for Australian jobs and changes to citizenship requirements are seemingly in response to a political agenda beyond these policies.

This is not the first time the government has shed crocodile tears for Australian workers.

The Fair Work Commission’s decision to cut Sunday penalty rates for thousands of low paid workers came the day after the Bureau of Statistics found that wages growth had been the lowest since records began in the 1990s.

Responding to the ABS figures Treasurer Scott Morrison claimed that low wage growth was the “biggest challenge” facing the Australian government.

“The biggest challenge we have is to ensure what Australians are earning every week is increasing,” he said.

Within days he, the Prime Minister and the rest of the government were endorsing a pay cut for the lowest paid in the country.

Nurses and midwives are not immune from cuts to penalty rates

Malcolm Turnbull said it was “absurd” and “ridiculous” to claim that the Commission’s decision to cut penalty rates could affect nurses.

Not long after the Prime Minister voiced his support for the Commission’s decision and claimed that nurses were immune to a roll back of penalty rates a major health care company Sonic Health Plus were proposing exactly that (see pp10-11). Sonic, which employs hundreds of nurses across Australia tried to cut Sunday penalty rates from 75 per cent to 50 per cent in EBA talks.

Sonic was not alone. In aged care we have seen the same thing. As my colleague Lee Thomas said: “Sonic Health proves that employers are now lining up to start stripping away penalty rates from nurses and other employees”.

What has always underpinned decent living standards for Australian workers are well paid, unionised jobs, protected penalty rates, a strong safety net, a universal health system, educational opportunities for all our children and livable retirement incomes.

All these rights have been under attack by the Coalition. The government always hides behind the language of neoliberalism and trickle down economics to justify these attacks. Cutting penalty rates and cutting corporate taxes will create more jobs, they say.

This is a stale policy of privatisation, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade, and reductions in government spending in order to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society and Australians deserve better.

Recently our new ACTU Secretary Sally McManus copped an enormous amount of flak when she said “neoliberalism had run its course”. It was interesting that Paul Keating, the architect of the open Australian economy, immediately supported her position.

The government is clinging to tired ideas that have only delivered inequality for working people.Trusting the market or the benevolence of employers to maintain living standards is a demonstrable failure.

It’s time for a new course and Malcolm Turnbull could make a start by stepping up to the plate and protecting penalty rates in law.