Endangered – Your rights at work

Nurses will have to defend their right to a reasonable workload and other hard-fought rights and conditions under the nurses’ award when the Howard government grabs control of the Senate on 1 July.

When the federal government takes control of the Senate from 1 July, John Howard – for the first time since he became Prime Minister – will be able to pass whatever laws he likes without them being blocked or changed by the Senate.

The government says it wants to use these new powers to rewrite Australia’s workplace laws and take away many Australian workers’ basic rights.

NSWNA General Secretary Brett Holmes says the changes are loaded to benefit business at the expense of Australian working families.
‘The government’s plans would make it harder for working Australians to get ahead and take them backwards at a time when many are just keeping their heads above water,’ he says.

Brett says many of the government’s plans will have important consequences for NSW nurses.

‘The creation of a national system using corporate law will mean there will be no safe haven in state Labor jurisdictions. If you work for or are employed by an incorporated board, such as a health board, you will be drawn into the federal system.

‘The government intends reducing the number of matters in awards. For example, they will be able to take the workloads clause out of our public hospital award.’

There are currently more than 50 Clauses in the Public Hospitals Nurses’ (State) Award. The federal government wants to reduce the number of Clauses to 16, and businesses are pushing for only six.

‘Other important gains like super will also be removed from awards,’ said Greg.

‘Our ability to take industrial action will be constrained. For example, the families of patients will be able to take action under the Act and demand the termination of industrial action.

‘In a broader sense, by bringing state workers into the federal arena they are reducing the influence of state Labor governments on the economy and their ability to deliver fairness. It is all about centralising power in Canberra.’

A struggle for the future of unionism
ACTU Secretary Greg Combet agrees the government’s agenda is serious and there will be a struggle for the future of unionism and the right to collectively bargain.

‘It is a substantial challenge. What the government is trying to do is individualise working relationships.

‘In most advanced economies like the UK and the United States, there is a provision in the laws for collective agreements. Under the Howard government’s changes we will end up with the worst of all worlds.

‘The government wants every worker to be employed on an individual contract or as an independent contractor. If they had their way, every employee would have to have an ABN (Australian Business Number).

‘What their intentions boil down to is a direct employment arrangement between employers and employees with no unions, no tribunals and no arbitration. It will lead to increased inequality, declining standards of living, less healthy and safe workplaces and a reduced role for unions and collective bargaining.

‘The attacks have already started with over 90,000 employees in the tertiary education system being offered individual contracts in return for funding.

‘They intend to abolish the way minimum wages are set, take out the union role so wages will be frozen or decline in value.’
Although the government’s agenda is draconian, unions throughout Australia are prepared to defend the interests of their members, says Greg Combet,

‘When I talk to unions around the country, there is no fear or panic. We’re going to fight. We’re going to protect as many people as we can within the state IR systems. And for those workers pushed into the federal IR system, we are going to push Howard back as far as possible.’

We need to protect our award

Though many people don’t realise it, almost all working Australians currently enjoy the protection of a strong award system. Most of the pay and conditions we take for granted are guaranteed in state or federal awards.

The rights protected by awards include:

  • wage rates based on skills levels
  • overtime pay
  • weekend or night work rates
  • work related allowances
  • maternity and parental leave
  • annual leave
  • redundancy pay
  • reasonable workloads.

The government says it wants to cut a number of important conditions from awards like skill-based pay structures, bonuses, jury service, allowances and picnic days. Business is urging them to go much further and get rid of awards altogether and replace them with just five or six minimum conditions.

The Howard government also wants to totally abolish state awards, which cover half the Australian workforce including NSW nurses.

Right to a reasonable workload scrapped
Rose Meiruntu, Nurse Educator, RPA

I feel uneasy about the government’s changes. They want everything the same whether it is for coalminers or for nurses. But we have different needs. We need our unique conditions recognised. It’s important to protect our award. We worked hard to get it, it provides us with guidelines and it protects workers. It shouldn’t be taken over federally.

Stripping the award will be unattractive for nurses. Conditions like the workloads clause shouldn’t go. It has to stay so we can measure our skills mix and workloads.

I think individual contracts are a problem as well. It is difficult to negotiate one-on-one with an employer. People are naive about these issues and don’t have access to the information. They’re not a good thing.

I think the way the minimum wage is set should stay the same with unions arguing for an increase. Otherwise the low-paid don’t have the power and won’t be able to argue their case. They will be screwed.

Nursing shortage to worsen
Michael Koenen, RN, St Vincents Private, Lismore

I think reducing the conditions in awards is dangerous. Workers will not be protected anymore. It doesn’t make any sense when you have a nursing shortage. We need to make it a more attractive profession rather than strip back our rights.

The government’s unfair dismissal laws will leave people much more vulnerable. Everyone has commitments such as mortgages. This will mean they will have less job security.

In private hospitals, with the constant fluctuation of patients, these laws could be used to get rid of permanent people and replace them with casuals.

The government wants to make it more difficult for unions. It seems ridiculous to take a step backwards and give more power to employers so they don’t have to share their profits and social responsibilities with workers.

Howard loses one of his battlers
David Anasson, RN at Scalabrini Village, Bexley, has voted Liberal all his life but he now asserts Howard’s power is out of control, and his changes to industrial relations laws are very scary for workers.

‘I voted for Howard last election but I never thought they would get control of the upper house and have carte blanche to do whatever they liked.

The election didn’t give them a mandate to change the IR laws. I wouldn’t have voted for them if they had said they were going to change the IR laws during the election campaign.

They’ll be able to set the minimum wage at any level they like. You see executives earning $18 million a year but the minimum wage could end up being set at $250 to $300 a week. If we go down the American road, we would have people on $2.50 an hour on the minimum wage like they do in Kansas. How can people live on that?

The present system is perfectly good, it works well and people are happy except for the federal government. They just want total control.

Most of the big companies are doing well and are already making money hand over fist at the expense of workers.

I’ve voted Liberal all my life but I feel hood-winked. If I knew they were going to change the IR laws I wouldn’t have voted for them.
We have a good union, strong in numbers and we should stand up to them. I’m prepared to be part of it. I’ve never been on strike but it’s different when faced with losing pay and conditions that we’ve won over many years. In aged care we are vulnerable because it is funded federally.

Things about living in Sydney are not applicable elsewhere like Perth or Tasmania. You need to earn more money in Sydney – food and rent is much more expensive.

Their one-size-fits-all approach won’t work here. They can’t lump us all in as one. The best thing is to have the states run their own IR laws and have their own commission.’

Unions will fight to protect your basic rights at work
Unions will oppose the Howard government’s changes and campaign for:

  • a strong safety net of award minimum wages and conditions;
  • proper rights for Australian workers to reject individual contracts and bargain for decent pay and conditions in collective agreements;
  • the right to join a union and be represented by a union;
  • a strong independent Industrial Relations Commission to settle disputes and ensure fair minimum wages and conditions.

Unions NSW – the peak body representing workers in NSW – has several actions planned to kick-start the campaigning at the end of June.

It will conduct separate Sky Channel hook-ups – one for union delegates on 27 May and another for the broader community at a later date to explain what the government is intending to do.

This hook-up will include a video to explain the impact of the changes on workers including a starring role from NSWNA President, Coral Levett, who will explain how the stripping of awards will impact on nurses – especially on our workloads.

They will host a family concert and picnic on 7 August.

They will also set up a public inquiry around the Industrial Relations system.

What the ACTU is doing
The ACTU will launch a National Week of Action from 26 June.

The ACTU has created a website www.yourrightsatwork.com.au and a range of campaign materials – flyers, bumper stickers, posters and fact sheets – that can be downloaded for use by workers.

6 things you need to know about the federal government’s plans to change Australia’s workplace laws

The government has not revealed all of its plans, but based on what it has said so far we know it wants to take away the following workplace rights:

  1. Remove employment conditions from awards.
  2. Change the way minimum wages are set to make them lower.
  3. Use individual contracts to undercut existing employment rights and conditions.
  4. Keep unions out of workplaces and reduce workers’ negotiating and bargaining rights.
  5. Abolish redundancy pay and protection from unfair dismissal for people who work in small business.
  6. Reduce the powers of the independent Industrial Relations Commission to settle disputes and set fair minimum standards at work.