The Guardian • Issue #1997

Why the WA newspapers fight matters to all of us

In our democracy, we value the principle of one person, one vote. We would be outraged if the richer you are the more votes you had, or if sections of our society were not allowed to vote. But let’s think about democracy more broadly. Every day, not just on election days, wealthy individuals and powerful corporations exercise what they see as their “right” to all the votes over what happens in workplaces and communities.

Inequality is at the very heart of our economy. Working people create enormous wealth for large and powerful corporations like Seven West Media, but they often get treated with blatant disrespect. 

Workers are paid a declining share of the value they create for their wealthy bosses. Not only are wages falling in real terms in Australia, but the share of total income paid to workers in wages and salaries (the “labour share”) has been declining for the past forty years, since the onset of the neoliberal disease. At the same time, the share of income going to capital owners in profits (the “capital share”) has risen. 

According to global charity Oxfam’s latest report, Inequality Kills, over the past two years the wealth of Australia’s forty-seven billionaires has doubled to $255 billion. While many of us have been struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic, billionaires have pocketed $205 million a day.

As for Seven West Media, in the last financial year, it made a pre-tax profit of $445 million. Not enough apparently, to pay its printworkers a decent wage or to even offer fair redundancies. Enough though to increase executive salaries by 400 per cent from $4 million to $16 million, all while Seven Group happily took $47 million in publicly funded JobKeeper subsidies!

When a few wealthy owners of capital get to make all the rules, they inevitably use their power not to improve our society and certainly not to remunerate their workers fairly, but to squeeze as much labour out of their workers at the lowest possible cost. One of their favourite ways of doing this is by casualising the workforce. This way they dodge their obligations as employers to provide paid sick leave, annual leave, and all other forms of leave. It also means they avoid paying penalty rates, which were designed to compensate workers for having to work family-unfriendly hours. If COVID has taught us nothing else, surely it has taught us that insecure work is not only a health risk to workers, who have no paid sick leave, but also a health risk to the community.

Australia has now one of the most casualised labour markets amongst OECD countries. What does this mean for employers? Cheaper labour with greater power to get rid of workers and to call the shots on working conditions. What does it mean for workers? Lower pay overall, higher uncertainty, financial stress, difficulty in gaining or maintaining mortgages or leases, greater likelihood of having to work more than one job and less opportunity to be unionised or to improve wages and conditions. There are 867,900 Australians working multiple jobs, the highest number since the ABS started tracking this development in 1994, with these multiple-job workers earning 17.5 per cent less than the national average. 

Australia now has 2.3 million casual workers, with sham contracting including gig work rife across many sectors of the economy and over 400,000 people on fixed term contracts. Sixty per cent of new jobs recently created have been casual. 

The workers at The West Australian are fighting for their livelihoods. Straight out of the dismal neoliberal playbook, billionaire Kerry Stokes’ systematic casualisation of this workforce and his mean-spirited stripping of redundancy conditions, is not just about cutting wages. It’s about demoralising and disrespecting a loyal, hard-working workforce who were there throughout the pandemic to make sure the newspaper was printed and in the hands of its readers. In this industry, with its fast-changing media platforms, printworkers are already in a precarious position. The struggle being waged by the printworkers’ union, the AMWU, is about working people having some control over their lives and their futures. It’s about security. It’s about respect. 

That’s why we in the broader community, the community these workers and their families are part of, need to get behind their campaign. Their employer talks loudly and talks often about corporate social responsibility. But how can this mean anything when he is pocketing a portion of the wages owed to those who create his profits, with a view to creating a workforce that is insecure, low-paid, expendable, disposable, and disrespected. 

Kerry Stokes is fighting for even greater profits. AMWU members at Seven West Media are simply fighting for some measure of justice. He is trying to casualise and demonise his workforce because he can. They are fighting for their rights because they must.

You don’t build a fair society or a strong economy by ramping up inequality. In a fair society billionaires would not be allowed to plunder the lives and livelihoods of their workers. As far as these workers, and all of us who stand in solidarity with them, are concerned, Kerry Stokes can lock us out but, as a movement for social justice, he can’t shut us down.

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