The Guardian • Issue #1955

Omnibus bill wounded but not buried

The Coalition’s omnibus industrial relations bill was torn apart in the Senate on Thursday 18th March, leaving only the section on casuals intact. On the same day Parliament passed a bill for the (pre-COVID base rate) unemployment benefit (JobSeeker) to be increased by an insulting and punitive $25 a week – just $3.57 a day extra – when the COVID supplement ceases at the end of March. JobKeeper is being withdrawn at the same time.

Recognising it would be defeated in the Senate, the government had previously removed the section on the better off overall test (BOOT) which would have permitted enterprise agreements to undermine awards. The section on criminalising wage theft had the support of Labor and cross-benchers, but the government pulled it when it realised it could not get the remainder of the bill through. It might be used as a bargaining chip at a later date.

Its withdrawal was no loss to workers. The criteria set for its provisions to come into force were almost impossible to meet – in practice they would have been useless. Worse than that, they overrode far superior provisions criminalising wage theft in Victorian and Queensland legislation.

What remained of the bill – the section on casuals – was passed by the House of Representatives on the following Monday. The government had agreed to some amendments exempting small business from the section on casuals to win over One Nation.

While the defeat and withdrawal of some sections by the government could be construed as a win for workers and trade unions, it is not time to rejoice. Employers and the government have far from given up. All it does it buy the labour movement more time to heighten their campaign and win wider community support.

Casual employment to increase

The provisions on casuals were of the most urgent concern to employers. They overturn two court decisions requiring employers who had incorrectly classified workers as casuals to back-pay foregone leave and other entitlements of a permanent worker, at the same time as keeping their casual loading.

According to Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter, the decisions opened the way for thousands more similar claims that would have cost employers a total of up to $39 billion in back-payments – what the government and employers refer to as “double dipping.”

Murdoch’s Australian newspaper said the casual employment measures will “largely benefit business.” And they will by a large amount!

The section on casuals permits an employer to declare a worker to be a casual at the time of hiring. That makes the worker a casual. In theory the worker must agree to be employed as a casual, even if their employment is not casual. In practice, as every worker knows, it is a matter of agreeing or being shown the door.

This will only incentivise employers to label workers as casuals, creating insecure work and loss of basic entitlements that other workers enjoy, such as sick leave, annual leave, and paid public holidays.

Not only is the work itself and hence income insecure, but the fear of being sacked for joining a trade union, reporting unsafe working conditions or demanding workplace rights, can be very real. It increases the power that employers have over their workforce, facilitating greater exploitation. The impact on workers will be devastating.

The passing of the casuals section of the bill sets the scene for a massive employer assault on wages and working conditions of all workers. Almost two million unemployed or underemployed workers are waiting to accept jobs if existing employees resist employer push-backs. The only barrier to this is the trade union movement and protection of awards and enterprise agreements.

Around forty per cent of the workforce is already employed as casuals. The impact of this high rate of casualisation was very clear during the pandemic, with workers working two or three jobs and spreading the virus between places of employment. Casuals tend to be amongst the lowest paid workers and were amongst the first to be laid off during the pandemic – a situation compounded by their lack of entitlement to sick leave.

The provisions claiming to provide a pathway from casual employment to permanent employment after twelve months of continuous employment have so many loopholes as to render them meaningless.

Other provisions defeated

The other sections on part-time flexibility, enterprise agreements, and greenfield agreements were defeated.

The section on part-time flexibility denied part-time employees who do extra hours payment at penalty rates. This would have facilitated and encouraged employers to employ workers on a part-time basis so that they could then have them work flexible hours on demand without being paid accordingly. The Fair Work Commission looks set to implement this provision later this month, contrary to the vote in Parliament.

The section on simplifying the process for approving enterprise agreements provided for workers to approve non-union agreements without an understanding of what they were signing.

The greenfield section would have given employers arbitrary powers to set in place agreements on new projects that could not be renegotiated for eight years. That would also prohibit industrial action during that period. In practice these would be non-union “agreements,” as dictated by the employer without negotiations.

The defeat of these sections is a good result for the labour movement but are not a signal to let up in the campaign against them. The government will be back again while making use of the intervening time to try to try to buy off cross-benchers.

The employers who the Coalition represents never let up in the class struggle.

Jobs myth

“[…] We are at a critical point in our recovery,” Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter said, in his Second Reading speech to Parliament last December. The legislation has one specific goal: to secure Australia’s economic recovery and safeguard the workplace for future generations by removing known barriers to creating jobs, Porter claimed.

As can be seen from the legislation, these so-called barriers are workers’ and trade union rights, decent wages and working conditions. The bill sets out to undermine workers’ rights and trade union rights, reduce wages and give employers maximum flexibility over working conditions.

“[It] will drive us forward, create jobs and get Australians back to work,” according to the Treasurer Josh Frydenberg even though the government boasts that workers are back to work in larger numbers than prior to the pandemic.

The claims about job creation are pure fiction. Lower wages, uncertain hours, and insecure employment will not only lead to greater hardship and poverty but will result in the destruction of jobs.

The aim of the bill is to increase the profits of employers, in particular the big business mates of this government.

This agenda has not been abandoned. Before the ink was dry on the remains of the gutted bill, the employer bodies were already lobbying the government to continue negotiations with crossbenchers and to bring back the legislation for another try. They will not let up until their legislation is passed.

The trade union movement has campaigned and lobbied hard to defeat the bill. It has had some success in defeating all but one section. It demonstrates what can be done.

The fight must be maintained and broadened to ensure that this win is built on, that the government is prevented from passing the remaining sections, and kicked out of office.

Just as the employers have not let up in their fight to destroy trade unions, reduce wages and slash working conditions, the trade union movement must not give up in this struggle to defeat the legislation and secure in its place progressive reforms that are in the interests of workers.

The Guardian can also be viewed/downloaded in PDF format. View More