Who really ever believed Tony Abbott’s declaration that WorkChoices was ‘dead, buried and cremated’?
While we may never hear the term WorkChoices uttered by Coalition members and their supporters ever again, processes have already been set in place to achieve the same end, albeit by different means.
This time the Abbott government is using the Productivity Commission to conduct a review into the entire industrial relations system. This is despite a promise before the 2013 federal election, that there would not be wholesale changes to industrial relations legislation. Described as wide ranging, details recently released by the Productivity Commission show that every aspect of the rules governing the employment relationship will be up for grabs.
As demonstrated more than once in recent history, the Coalition’s idea of industrial relations reform is only ever about cutting wages and removing and reducing conditions. No matter how it is characterised by government spin doctors and conservative commentators, the bottom line is that we lose! Before WorkChoices the broad scope of this review (see box) is an ominous sign, as is the appointment of the Productivity Commission to conduct the review. As the name suggests, this is a body whose primary focus is economic efficiency, placing too much faith in theoretical models that have no application in the real world. The business community, lobbying long and hard for a reduction in minimum wages, weekend penalties and shift allowances. Already, employers in a number of industries, including retail, hospitality, pharmacy and hair and beauty have made application to the Fair Work Commission to reduce penalty rates in respective Awards as part of the four year Award Review process.
While the wide ranging scope of this Inquiry is effectively a review of employment law and the industrial relations system as a whole, the issue of penalty rates is front and centre in this process and is central to the question of identifying our priorities as a community and integral to shaping the type of society we would wish to live in.
The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) maintains that the regulation of labour is necessary to protect and promote the nature and dignity of humanity and work. This means employees cannot be treated as commodities, nor can their labour be treated in purely economic terms. Labor regulation is essential to a functional economy. Properly set and enforced, these standards guard against exploitation and ensure that minimum standards are established and periodically reviewed. In the process, they promote broad and rising prosperity, as well as public confidence.
Employees have the right to just minimum wages, fair and safe working conditions and the right of collective representation. Employment and labour laws should reflect the values that are important to our society including the public interest, the fair go, institutional independence, due process and the transparent recognition, application and regulatory support for collective representation.
Our health system is totally dependent on the thousands of nurses and midwives prepared to work all sorts of different shifts, at all hours of the day, over seven days a week, on public holidays, Saturdays and Sundays year in, year out, over an entire working life. They should be fairly compensated and remunerated for the hours they are required to work and the impact it has on all aspects of life. This places nurses and midwives front and centre of this debate and your voices must be heard.
Those advocating for the abolition of penalty rates completely ignore the impact on weekly income and the effect on individuals and families, and the flow on effects from lower income levels more broadly in the community. Nurses and midwives, working a roster which includes working afternoon shifts and weekends, stand to lose up to 40% of their weekly wages if penalty rates are removed or reduced. While the Abbott government and their supporters talk in abstract terms about the impact of penalty rates on business competitiveness and profitability, no comment is made about the personal financial effects of losing a large chunk of your weekly wage.
Over the coming months the ANMF will be responding to the PC Inquiry with comprehensive submissions covering all aspects of the Review including the importance of penalty rates. We have already had a huge response from ANMF members who have responded to an online survey asking:
- What do your penalty rates mean to you?
- Do they compensate for shift work?
- How does shift work affect your life?
In addition, ANMF will be involved in ongoing activities to ensure the voice of nurses and midwives is heard loud and clear.
The Productivity Commission (PC) has been asked by the government to ‘assess the performance of the workplace relations framework’ and make recommendations to improve workplace relations laws. While the PC has been asked to look at ‘fair and equitable pay and conditions for employees, including the maintenance of a relevant safety net’, the other 10 factors listed in the terms of reference are focused on economic questions and the interests of business including unemployment, productivity, flexibility for businesses, competitiveness and the red tape and compliance burden for business.
The PC released five issues papers in January, asking for submissions by 13 March 2015. A draft report will be released by the PC in June/July 2015 and public hearings will be held in August/September. The final report to government is due by 30 November 2015.
Further details of the inquiry and Issues papers can be found at: www.pc.gov.au/inquiries/current/ workplace-relations/issues
Federal Industrial Research Officer