Penalty rates at risk: ACTU

Sydney-protestChastised by its experience of WorkChoices, the Coalition isn’t saying much about industrial relations in this election campaign. But the ACTU is concerned about their intention towards penalty rates, individual contracts and other workers’ rights.

Tony Abbott isn’t saying much publicly about industrial relations policy, except to say that under a Liberal National government the Fair Work Act would be subject to an inquiry run by the Productivity Commission.

ACTU President Ged Kearney says that while the Coalition does not want to talk about industrial relations, the fine print of its IR policy, coupled with its promised review of the Fair Work Act, means conditions are at risk.

“We know what the business agenda is: abolish penalty rates, cut wages, introduce individual contracts, make it harder for workers to bargain collectively and make it easier to sack people in the name of flexibility,” Ged said.

Business lobby groups such as the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry have criticised the Liberal policy as too soft.

The head of the Australian Retailers Association, Russell Zimmerman, has wondered why employers should wait four more years for “employment regulation reforms”.

While Tony Abbott has been guarded in his public comments about reviving aspects of WorkChoices, he has been more forthcoming at Liberal Party forums.

A few months ago, at a Liberal Party-organised forum in Kingston, South Australia, he was asked about abolishing penalty rates. He said he believed the only way to bring this about would be for a federal government to pressure the independent umpire to strip back penalty rates.

“I think the best way forward, at least initially, is to try to ensure that the award situation does maximise employment, and at the moment we are not maximising employment by closing down businesses and preventing people from getting jobs.

“I am confident that if the government were to back, for argument’s sake, applications to the Fair Work Commission for adjustments in this area, it may well be successful.”

Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party’s attitude towards penalty rates is as out of touch with public opinion now as it was during the Your Rights At Work campaign.

Polling conducted by Essential Research last month shows that most Australians (79%) support higher pay rates for people who work outside normal hours on night shifts, weekends or public holidays. Only 13% were opposed.

Australians rejected the claim that cutting penalties rates would save jobs, with 64% saying the main outcome of abolishing penalty rates would be that company profits would increase, and only 18% saying they believed it would lead to companies employing more workers.

A majority of those surveyed (57%) said abolishing penalty rates would be bad for the economy because workers would have less to spend, while only 22% said it would be good for the economy because it would create more jobs.

“Cutting penalty rates would immediately reduce the standard of living of millions of Australians and take many billions of dollars out of the economy, costing jobs,” says Ged Kearney.

Liberal state governments show the way

While the Coalition has been quiet at the federal level on IR issues, at the state level, especially in New South Wales and Queensland, conservative governments have been ruthless in rolling back workers’ rights, especially those of state sector workers.

One of the first actions of the Campbell Newman Liberal National Party (LNP) government, on taking office in Queensland, was to automatically recover, without prior approval, overpayments of up to 25% of a nurse’s wage, overpaid in a health department payroll disaster.

In their first budget, the Queensland LNP earmarked more than 4000 jobs to be cut from the health sector. They have placed unprecedented restrictions on the Queensland Nurses Union’s right of entry to hospitals and the rights of union members to attend union meetings, conferences and training. They have passed legislation that forces the union to run a full membership referendum before spending more than $10,000 on a political campaign.

In New South Wales, the O’Farrell Government has capped public sector pay at 2.5% (effectively made 2.25% by deducting for the increase in superannuation guarantee contribution); has gutted the Workers Compensation scheme; and removed most of the powers of the independent umpire, the Industrial Relations Commission.


Where the parties stand on industrial relations


The Labor Party is committed to maintaining a comprehensive safety net of minimum employment conditions and supports collective bargaining at the heart of the Fair Work system. It supports right of entry provisions for union officials.


The Coalition will ask the Productivity Commission to undertake a review of the Fair Work laws and will implement its recommendations if elected.


The Greens oppose stripping back the content of awards and believe that issues such as nurse/patient ratios and job security should be allowable award matters. They want to see an extension of rights available under the National Employment Standards.