Howard’s choice for employees: take it or lose your job

With his cool looks, spunky partner and chic restaurant, Pink Salt’s boss Evan Hansimikali is an unlikely looking class warrior.

But an exchange between Evan and his sous-chef Stewart in a recent episode of Channel Seven’s My Restaurant Rules on prime-time television has given Australian workers an illuminating insight into the workplace ideology now being championed by the Howard government.

Stewart had realised the boss had unilaterally stopped paying staff award rates. He confronted Evan after he was paid $300 less than he expected.

‘I thought we were all on casual … Now we are all on wages? No one has talked to us. No one has shown us where our pay slips are. No one’s shown us our tax, no one’s shown us our super,’ he said.

‘I’m getting the forms so you can sign the AWAs (individual contracts),’ replied Hansimikali.
Stewart estimated he would now be paid about $10 an hour. Pink Salt had made $82,000 the previous week.

How AWAs have been used to rip employees off
AWAs are the tool the Howard government has given employers like Evan so they can impose a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum on their staff.

Australia is the only country in the democratic world where an employer can refuse to negotiate with a union, demanding instead that employees sign individual contracts that remove their rights to collective bargaining and representation.

Employees who refuse to sign an individual contract generally do not receive the wage increases and other benefits that go to those who do sign. They can even be locked out by the employer until they do, as occurred at the G&K O’Connor meatworks.

In 2001, Channel 9’s Sunday program exposed criminal tactics, incitement to violence, perjury, frame-ups and the use
of undercover spies in a three-year drive to cut workers’ wages using AWAs at the G&K O’Connor Meatworks at Pakenham, near Melbourne.

Last year in another notorious case, a group of mothers was sacked at a Victorian mushroom farm, Merbein, after they refused to sign up to a 25% pay cut under AWAs.

The six women were the only members of the workforce of about 45 who refused to sign the individual contracts. The new contracts cut their pay by an average of around $150 per week.

Some of the women had worked for the company as mushroom pickers for nearly eight years, but were classified as ‘casuals’ and received less than $1,000 in termination pay.

NSWNA General Secretary Brett Holmes says AWAs are a deliberate strategy by the Howard government to undermine unions and collective bargaining.

‘They are an obnoxious tool for employers to cut pay and conditions. They contravene internationally recognised rights. They are inefficient, ineffective and unfair. Employees should resist signing them and stick with their union.’

What is an Australian Workplace Agreement? 

  • AWAs are individual contracts.
  • They are secret and unreviewable.
  •  The only way to challenge a decision of the Employment Advocate who is responsible for secretly reviewing AWAs is through the High Court on a question of law.
  • The federal government has championed them for nine years yet less than 2.4 per cent of the workforce is covered by AWAs.