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Issue #1912      April 27, 2020

WAR ON WORKERS

The Morrison Coalition government is using COVID-19 as a cover to continue to wage war on workers on behalf of its mates in big business. Earlier this month Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter announced regulatory changes to the operation of the Fair Work Act paving the way for an employer offensive.

$42 to $780 now. They call it “supply and demand.” “Criminal” would be a more accurate description.

The latest changes are in response to lobbying by the Business Council of Australia and other employer groups. They slash the time allowed for workers to examine employer demands to reduce wages and working conditions in enterprise bargaining agreements (EBAs) before voting on them.

Prior to the change, employers had to give seven days’ notice. Now workers will have just twenty-four hours to study, understand and discuss their bosses’ proposed changes before a ballot is held. This will turn the whole process into a meaningless farce. It will, in effect, rule out any prospect of a trade union or its members analysing the proposed changes or holding meaningful negotiations.

The only realistic way that workers can intervene in the process is to vote “NO” in the ballot and so buy more time to consider the proposed changes.

Workers in non-union workplaces will be in an even more vulnerable position without the necessary leadership and unity essential to tackling their boss’ demands.

PROFITS OF FLEXIBILITY

Earlier in the month, amendments to the Fair Work Act had already given employers who came under the JobKeeper scheme the flexibility to change the hours, pay, duties, and work location of their employees. They can also direct workers to use their paid leave, as long as they are left with a minimum entitlement of two weeks.

In theory, employers have to reach an agreement with their employees or union, before variations to EBAs can be made. If an agreement cannot be reached, then the Fair Work Commission (FWC) can conciliate or arbitrate.

“These changes will allow employers to ram through reductions in pay and undermine job security,” ACTU secretary Sally McManus said. “We know that, sadly, too many employers will exploit the system if there are no safeguards for working people.”

Large employers who don’t qualify to claim JobKeeper assistance will “have room to move and stay afloat,” CEO of the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westacott, said, in praise of the latest changes.

“For some businesses this will be even more valuable than a wage subsidy,” she said, putting her finger on the real agenda – maintaining profits for shareholders.

Australian Industry Group CEO Innes Willox spelt out the potential employer flexibility (read: attack on workers) in the changes. He specifically noted the potential of “delaying or cancelling future wage increases,” more flexible working hours, removing restrictions on part-time employment and leave arrangements, and the ability to direct staff to take accrued leave.

HOW TEMPORARY IS TEMPORARY?

“These changes are designed to enable companies to deal swiftly with urgent issues that are arising in their workplaces, such as health and safety issues associated with COVID-19,” Porter said taking political spin to a new level. When did this government worry about the health and safety of workers!

And, says the Minister, they are only temporary – for six months. It is a safe bet that corporate Australia will not only be lobbying for tax cuts by then but for continuation after six months. They would prefer permanent, not temporary.

The question is: How temporary is temporary?!

Many workers have already taken a hit with shorter hours and wage cuts. The FWC has now approved variations to a number of awards, including the clerks and hospitality awards, to facilitate changes to conditions and wage reductions. These changes are currently set to apply until 30th June. Watch this space as they say!

The FWC is also operating in fast-forward mode as it processes applications to variations to EBAs that claim to address COVID-19.

Employers are making the most of the precarious situation millions of workers face. The government, on their behalf, is using COVID-19 to further its agenda of deregulating the labour market and winding back collective bargaining, awards and EBAs.

EXTORTION

The pandemic constantly throws up examples of just how sick and corrupt the system of capitalism is. Capital will stop at nothing to make a super-profits.

While some sectors of the economy such as hospitality, the arts and entertainment, retail (except for supermarkets), and transport are bleeding, others can’t suck enough blood out of the system.

The latter knows no end of greed, even if it is at the expense of health care workers who put their lives on the line. Facemasks are one such example. The price of Livingstone International’s facemasks rose twenty-seven per cent during the bushfires.

Then, when the pandemic hit, they rocketed out of sight. The same box that cost $42 in January is now being offered for more than $780 on their website. They call it “supply and demand.” “Criminal” would be a more accurate description.

Meanwhile, Crown Resorts joins the queue of multi-billion dollar corporations lining up for the government’s JobKeeper scheme. It is standing down 11,500 employees. At the same time it can find $205 million to pay shareholders dividends!

THE STRUGGLE AHEAD

The government is already signalling what lies ahead in a post-COVID-19 economy, which may not be as soon as it thinks.

It has three priorities: tax cuts for the largest corporations (mostly foreign-owned), deregulation, and “wide-scale industrial relations reform.” The government will also seek to put the budget “back in the black” and wind back government debt.

Giving big business a hundred billion or more dollars in tax cuts will not reduce the budget deficit, nor will it tackle government debt (the accumulated deficits). That can only mean one thing – the planned recovery will be on the backs of workers and social security recipients. That gift to corporate Australia would have paid off the deficit and debt very quickly over a few years.

The government has not let up on its anti-worker/anti-union agenda. We should not forget or ignore the draconian Ensuring Integrity Bill that is on the table when Parliament returns.

The “wide-scale industrial relations reform” is political spin for an all-out attack on trade union and workers’ rights to prevent resistance to its agenda.

That is if we do nothing. Trade unions, together with the wider community, are the only forces that can prevent this scenario from playing out. Now is the time to act, to strengthen the trade union movement and if you are not a member to join the union.

Next article – Editorial – APP-SOLUTELY NOT! SAY “NO” TO SURVEILLANCE!

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