When Tony Abbott blamed the so called ‘over generous’ wages and working conditions of SPC workers for the company’s problems he was called to account by one of his own government members, Sharman Stone. The company also responded quickly, stating its problems had nothing to do with employee conditions.
Around the same time, the Employment Minister Eric Abetz announced that Australia was risking a ‘wages explosion’. This too was contrary to the facts. Recent ABS data shows that overall wages growth was only 2.5% for the year to December 2013, the lowest annual increase since 1997 when this information was first collected.
The government’s response to announcements by Ford, Holden, Toyota, Alcoa and now Qantas continues this pattern of blame, pointing the finger at employees’ wages and conditions and using terminology such as unsustainable, uncompetitive and inflexible to characterise conditions leading to the massive job losses. We expect to hear much more of this talk in the coming months, (and years), continuing the theme as the government sets the scene to introduce its so called labour market reforms which is simply code for cutting wages and conditions.
It is clear from the outset that recommendations from the plethora of government reviews currently underway or in the pipeline will pave the way for the government to push their agenda which includes a wide ranging attack on unions, employee wages and conditions including penalty rates and allowances, your rights at work and the ability of unions to negotiate enterprise agreements.
Already the government is supporting business groups in advocating changes to modern awards to reduce the safety net for wages and conditions. The government’s submission to the ‘Four year Review of Modern Awards’ to be conducted by the Fair Work Commission (FWC), suggests that it will be targeting hours and days of work, overtime, penalty rates and allowances and asks the FWC to consider whether the additional pay provided for working particular times and days is appropriate. It also urges the FWC to take into account “the impact of employment costs on employers’ decision to hire workers over the next four years”, and consider reducing the content of modern awards.
If the alarm bells are not already ringing, proposed amendments to the Fair Work Act introduced to Parliament in February this year provide further confirmation of the government’s agenda to target wages and conditions. Included among a raft of amendments are changes to the flexibility term in awards and agreements and to the enforcement and termination of individual flexibility arrangements. This is just another means to achieve an end which is to cut pay and conditions.
The amendments would allow individual flexibility arrangements to buy out penalty rates and overtime for no monetary compensation at all. That is, provided the arrangement is done under the guise of greater flexibility, the current ‘better off overall test’ will be satisfied and the criteria under the legislation met. The amendment also seeks to remove any capacity for the negotiating parties to an enterprise agreement to limit the range of matters that can be covered by an individual flexibility term. It will be a requirement that flexibility terms in Agreements cover, (at a minimum), arrangements about when work is performed, overtime rates, penalty rates, allowances and leave loading.
If all this sounds familiar, it is. It may not be ‘WorkChoices’ by name but if it quacks like a duck…
While the terms of reference for the government’s reviews are not publicly available as yet, the FWC is about to commence hearings in relation to the Award Review. The ANMF will be closely involved in this process, particularly as the modern Nurses Award and the Aged Care Award operate as a safety net of wages and conditions for nurses and carers working in the public and private sectors in Victoria, Northern Territory, Australian Capital Territory, and the private sector in all other States.
Most nurses are covered by agreements negotiated between the ANMF and the employer however the wages and conditions contained in Awards are still very relevant to agreement making for nurses in the national system, as an agreement will not be approved by the FWC unless employees will be ‘better off overall’ under the terms and conditions of the agreement as compared to the Award.
The Nurses and Aged Care Awards currently includes specific arrangements around rostering, hours of work, overtime, shift work, weekend work and public holidays that reflect the seven day, 24 hour operation of the health industry. Health industry employers have already, in the ‘two year Review’ of Awards, argued to reduce entitlements to penalty rates and other allowances and it is expected there will be further applications to do so under this exercise. In the current environment ANMF members and other union members will be facing a tough battle to defend long standing entitlements. This will be a long hard struggle but there is an awful lot to lose.
Federal Industrial Research Officer