Howard’s horror laws come alive

The `horror stories` of unscrupulous employers seizing their moment to sack employees they didn`t want, didn`t like, or simply didn`t like the look of have grabbed the headlines since the federal government`s laws came into force last month. But experts agree the biggest threat to workers comes from the ideological attack on collective bargaining.

When federal workplace relations minister Kevin Andrews finally released the regulations that complete the federal government’s new workplace laws, he stuck to the government’s year-old sales strategy: he hid the truth.

The regulations – the rules that determine how the workplace laws are carried out in practice – were announced minutes after Lisa McCann crossed the line to win the marathon at the Commonwealth Games.

The new laws and regulations, touted by the Howard government as ‘simplifying’ an overly-regulated system, consist of 1500 pages of text that put the minister at the centre of industrial relations with dictatorial powers.

Choice – what a joke
Andrews not only announced a long list of ‘prohibited content’ that is banned from agreements, even when employers and employees agree on them, he can also add to the list at will.

NSWNA General Secretary Brett Holmes said the prohibited content measures make a mockery of the government’s claims that the reforms are about choice.

‘The Minister has the powers under these new laws to ban a wide range of conditions agreed to between an employer and employees,’ he said.

‘Under the regulations, workers and unions can be hit with federal government fines of between $6,000 and $33,000 for merely seeking commitments from employers around job security or fair treatment.’

No credibility with economists
While the impact of the unfair dismissal laws were the media-grabbing features of the new laws, independent commentators – such as Sydney Morning Herald economics editor Ross Gittins – were outlining other features in the laws more deserving of ‘the most draconian’ tag.

‘That dubious honour goes to the attempt to stamp out collective bargaining – including removal of workers’ right to bargain collectively, which even American workers have retained – the amazing restrictions on the right to strike and the freedom for employers to impose individual contracts that do disadvantage workers. The punters will find this out in due course,’ he warned.
Gittens believes the workplace changes are political and the government’s rationale has little credence among experts.

‘The measures are blatantly pro-employer, anti-worker and anti-union, with more than an idle thought that further weakening the union will weaken the donation base of the Liberals’ political opponents,’ he said.

‘What we’re told, however is, that WorkChoices delivers on the government’s commitment to improve productivity, create more jobs and increase living standards for Australian families. I can find little support for those propositions among economists.’

Research tells: People loathe workplace laws
New research conducted by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) shows that the public are deeply opposed to the Howard Government’s new IR laws, and that the community believe the laws show that the government is acting in the interests of big business over the rights of Australian working families.

The ACTU polled 1,000 voters in 24 key coalition – held mar-ginal seats in late February and early March as part of the union movement’s ongoing campaign against the new IR laws.

Key findings include:

  • 72% of voters support unfair dismissal laws that protect workers
  • 70% believe that individual contracts give too much power to the employer
  • 68% agree that the new laws are strong evidence that John Howard governs more for corporate Australia than for ordinary working families
  • 60% agree that collective bargaining means better job security for workers
  • 66% believe that the laws are a threat to every working family.

Howard’s sham rationale exposed

What Howard said:
The new laws would simplify and streamline the previously over regulated system.
Reality:
There are now over 1000 pages of legislation and subordinate legislation that regulate every aspect of the workplace. There are 500 pages of additional explanatory memoranda.
What Howard said:
The new laws would give workers and employers more choice.
Reality:
Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews has powers under his new laws to ban a wide range of conditions that might be agreed between an employer and employees.
What Howard said:
The new laws would create more jobs.
Reality:
151 academics lodged a historic, joint, 43-page submission to the Senate inquiry debunking this claim. This is backed by surveys of small business which show small business will employ fewer workers as a result of the changes.
What Howard said:
The new laws are not based on the minority of ‘bad bosses’ but around the majority of ‘good employers’ and employees that want to work constructively together.
Reality:
‘Good employers’ can be fined $33,000 for including provisions in agreements that facilitate cooperation between workers
and employers.
What Howard said:
Low-paid workers would still have a safety net determined by the new so-called ‘Fair Pay’ Commission.
Reality:
Even Justice Geoff Guidice, appointed by Peter Reith to the federal Industrial Relations Commission as President and a former employer advocate, says the rationale of the Fair Pay Commission is to reduce the safety net and put downward pressure on the minimum wage.
What Howard said:
The new laws are not about driving wages down.
Reality:
It is now easier for employers to force workers onto individual contracts that undercut take home pay and remove conditions. The new laws also allow employers to remove conditions like penalty rates, overtime pay, weekend rates, public holidays and redundancy pay as well as effectively abolish the award safety net.