Early September 2014, the federal government with the support of the Palmer United Party passed legislation through the Parliament to freeze employer superannuation payments until 2021. The legislation reverses the previous Labor government’s commitment to progressively increase superannuation from 9.5 to 12% by 2025.
For most workers these new arrangements mean superannuation balances will grow more slowly and there will be less money in retirement. Female workers will feel the changes more deeply as they are more likely to have part time or precarious employment and often have their working lives disrupted by periods of unpaid parental leave.
While the federal government’s decision puts in stark display their values and priorities when it comes to working people, it also continues a subtle but sustained attack against employees, both at a national level and in most states and territories, where the conservative governments now hold power.
In fact thousands of nurses, midwives and carers working in the public sector are presently facing unprecedented attacks on their wages and working conditions as several state Liberal/Coalition governments around the country legislate to remove or restrict wage increases and undermine the role of independent industrial tribunals.
Furthermore it is arguable that in the last two to three years, even with the absence of the dreaded Work Choices laws, the attacks against working people, particularly those in the public sectors, has been ferocious and relentless.
While not attempting to list all the issues this article highlights the major changes nationally and in the states of Tasmania, Queensland, Victoria and NSW affecting nurses and carers, as well as, changes to public health and aged care services which are having a damaging impact.
While attempting to distance itself from the much hated ‘Australian Workplace Agreements’ the federal government is keen to make changes that will allow individual employers and employees to agree on arrangements that may differ from an award or collective agreement. While this has been available for some time these provisions presently can only be made where the employee is better off overall and where the arrangements can be terminated by either party. The government is backing employer calls for these protections to be removed.
Provide support to employers to reduce leave entitlements
While not addressing this issue directly the government has on a number of occasions supported employer applications (in retail and hospitality) to reduce the loadings and penalties entitlements of workers.
Changes to right of entry arrangements
The government has introduced new regulations making it much harder for union representatives to meet with members and potential members in workplaces.
Productivity Commission review of Fair Work Act
The Productivity Commission is to review national employment laws to ascertain whether the laws are a barrier to productivity and efficiency at workplaces. While the terms of reference for the review have yet to be announced it is widely expected to be detrimental to the interests of employees.
Royal Commission into trade unions
The government has established a royal commission to investigate and make recommendations on the activities and practices of trade unions. While the royal commission is only focussing on a small number of unions it is expected that changes to laws arising from the recommendations of the royal commission will apply to all unions.
Tasmania’s Liberal government has just tabled legislation in state Parliament to impose a 12 month wage freeze affecting all public sector nurses, midwives and care staff. The legislation also places a freeze on increases due to incremental progression within a classification structure and any increase in wage related allowances.
The 12 month freeze applies to all employees whether they are covered by an industrial agreement, an Award, contract of employment or any other instrument, and operates retrospectively on and from 28 August 2014.
In real terms, the wage freeze for nurses and midwives is a pay cut. With the consumer price index (CPI) currently running at about 3% per annum and trending up it will leave public sector nurses and midwives significantly worse off.
The government’s legislation also imposes restrictions on wage increases after the 12 month freeze. This is currently limited to 2% however the legislation further states that this can be “prescribed by regulation” meaning that even the 2% is not guaranteed, it could be less or even a further wage freeze.
The legislation also removes the right of Tasmanian nurses to commence negotiations for a new enterprise bargaining agreement to replace the current public sector agreement due to expire at the end of this year. The government may also bring in future regulations that further restrict the functions and powers of the Industrial Relations Commission and potentially lead to other restrictions on the right to bargain and bargaining outcomes.
It is no coincidence that separate legislation already before the Parliament, (the Workplace Protection Bill), introduces new anti-protest laws which potentially make it illegal to protest at a workplace in relation to an opinion or belief, in respect of a political, environmental, social, cultural or economic issue. It also makes it illegal to incite a protest, so organising events becomes illegal, as does waving a placard and the like. Not only is the government cutting real wages and over-riding rights to bargain, it is attacking democratic rights by outlawing any protest action.
Wages and conditions
In Queensland, Campbell Newman’s Liberal/National Party (LNP) government has, in effect, imposed a 12 month wages freeze on nurses and midwives announcing a 12 month delay in negotiations for the new entitlements.
This latest attack by the LNP is by no means atypical of the modus operandi of this government. Following their election in 2012, they wasted no time introducing changes to Queensland’s industrial relations laws. The fall-out from the changes continues with a second round of legislative changes rushed through late last year.
Described by unions as Work Choices for Queensland, the changes potentially remove long established conditions and working arrangements negotiated over several years of enterprise bargaining and established in Queensland Health Nurses and Midwives Award- State 2012 as a result of cases argued before the State Commission. The content of enterprise agreements will be dictated by matters the legislation deems “allowable” and “non-allowable”. As a result, current nursing and midwifery award and agreement provisions providing a “Workload Management Tool” are not “allowed”. This type of provision is now a critical feature of public sector agreements across the country and is used to determine appropriate staffing levels for nurses and midwives. It ensures that safe nursing practice can be maintained and therefore ensures the safety of the patient. This poses a serious threat to nursing workloads particularly in the context of almost 5,000 cuts to hospital and health service jobs over the last two years including 1,800 nurse and midwife positions so far.
Attack on Award conditions
Included in the latest legislative changes is a requirement for State awards to be “modernised”. So far the government has refused to rule out cuts to current award entitlements and have delayed the modernisation process creating more uncertainty about the outcome of this process.
Unions in Queensland, including the Queensland Nurses’ Union (QNU), successfully challenged draconian laws requiring unions to ballot members before spending more than $10,000 on “political matters”. This law, now repealed, was designed to make it impossible for unions to campaign around workplace and community issues by mandating a time consuming and expensive ballot process. Nurses and midwives enterprise agreement expiration has been extended to March 2016. The government’s decision to do this provides no detail of the impact on current and future wages and entitlements leaving nurses and midwives extremely anxious about their rights.
During 2011/2012 Victorian public sector nurses faced off against an aggressive state liberal government seeking to make major changes and reductions to nursing entitlements, including changes to staffing ratios, the introduction of split shifts and short shifts, separate agreements for each health facility and a miserable wage offer.
At the conclusion of a bitter and protracted campaign which resulted in many nurses and midwives having their pay docked for participating in stop work meetings and other forms of industrial action. The ANMF Victorian branch were successful in not only defeating the attempts by government to reduce nursing conditions but also secured a single collective agreement covering public health facilities which was overwhelmingly supported by the membership.
NEW SOUTH WALES
The New South Wales state government has capped public sector wage increases at 2.5%. In June, the government legislated to require that the NSW Industrial Relations Commission give effect to the capping policy in decisions to approve enterprise agreements.
This places the government in a unique position of power in the bargaining relationship. As a bargaining party they have, among other advantages, the superior advantage of significant resources and of being able to legislate their bargaining position.
The NSW government is putting a further squeeze on public sector employees’ pay by revealing it will make them pay for the federal government’s compulsory rise in superannuation out of their own pockets arguing the rise in compulsory superannuation – 0.25% from July 2014 is an employee expense which falls under the government’s 2.5% cap.
This decision along with below inflation wage increases means that NSW nurses, midwives and carers in the public sector are suffering real reductions in their remuneration.
In early 2012 the NSW government legislated major changes to the states workers compensation scheme. The changes including caps on medical and related expenses and new return to work arrangements will mean many nurses, midwives and carers injured at the workplace will face more severe financial hardships.
Since its election the NSW Liberal government has waged a relentless attack on public sector jobs. In 2011/12 the government axed 5,000 jobs and announced an intention to cut a further 10,000 EFT. In addition the government has been open about its desire to remove from awards any requirement for minimum staffing.
The NSW government is slavishly pursuing a program of privatisation of public health services. This includes the privatisation of the Northern Beaches Hospital, ADHC, mental health services and community services like physical health, drugs and alcohol support. All Greenfield sites, like Byron Central Hospital, will be public private partnership models.
The government is also proposing that public sector employees who are affected by the privatisation of public health facilities will only have their wages and employment conditions protected for up to two years
The examples of changes in regulation does illustrate that nurses and health services are, in the eyes of many conservative governments and their bureaucracies, an expense or cost that needs to be reduced.
The ensuing campaigns by the ANMF, its branches and members also serve to illustrate the determination the professions have to ensure health and aged services are maintained, that public sector workers are respected and valued and employment conditions are fair and reasonable.
Nick Blake & Debbie Richards
Federal Industrial Officers