- by Anna Pha
- The Guardian
- Issue #2023
Change The Rules Rally Melbourne. Photo: Matt Hrkac – flickr.com (CC BY 2.0)
Workers and their families are looking for real change – real wage rises, secure jobs, safe working conditions, with adequately funded and staffed health and aged care systems, and NDIS. Neoliberalism has worked for capitalism delivering record profits, but not for workers and their families.
Did the Jobs and Skills Summit deliver on their needs? The answer is a resounding “No.”
The Summit was held in the context of declining wages and working conditions, casualisation, loss of trade union rights, poverty level social security payments, cost-of living-crisis, economic crisis, housing crisis, and a trillion-dollar government debt.
More than one hundred roundtables were held across the country in the lead-up to the Summit on 1st and 2nd September. It was attended by 142 people from business, unions, community organisations, and the states. The Liberal Party rejected its invitation while Nationals leader David Littleproud attended.
The stated policy areas covered by the Summit were:
- Boosting productivity
- Maintaining of low unemployment
- Raising incomes
- Expanding employment opportunities including for the most disadvantaged
- Addressing skills shortages
- Maximising jobs opportunities from renewables, digital economy, and made in Australia
- Ensuring equal pay for women.
The government released an outcomes statement under three column headings: “Immediate actions,” “Areas for further work,” and “Complementary existing commitments.” Amongst the latter commitments were a number of progressive policies, albeit some of them were headlines rather than specific details. As the cliché goes, the devil is in the detail.
In reality, the principal focus was on class collaboration by the union movement – tripartism – where unions are expected to cooperate with employers and the government. The other key areas were productivity, increasing the skilled workforce, and industrial relations reforms with references to equality for women and minority groups – usually in the form of targets or agenda items for future discussion.
Speaking on the one hundredth day in office, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the biggest outcome he wanted from the Summit was “the beginning of a new culture of co-operation.”
Cooperation with employers is a dangerous illusion for workers.
“We have not gathered here to dig deeper trenches on the same old battlefield,” Albanese said in his opening speech to the Summit. The “battlefield” is a reference to class struggle, as if it can be done away with under capitalism. As employers never let up on their class interests, class peace means class collaboration by trade unions with employers.
Comparisons were made with the Prices and Incomes Accord between the Labor Party and the Australian Council of Trade Unions adopted in 1983. Under it the trade union movement made and honoured a commitment to “cooperate with employers.” They agreed to restrain wages and make no extra demands for improved working conditions.
Employers were not a party to the Accord and never made a commitment to cooperate with trade unions. Quite the contrary. They never let up in their pursuit of maximising profits and drawing every extra drop of blood out of workers.
The outcomes for workers were disastrous and are still being felt today. Over time class consciousness was dulled; industrial action fell to record lows; trade union density plummeted; trade union rights have been severely eroded; the centralised system of collective bargaining fragmented; and awards gutted to the bare minimum.
Prior to the elections, in an address to the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) (5th May), Albanese referred to Labor’s commitment to “Boosting wages through productivity.” This concept is repeated a number of times in the Summit Outcomes.
For example: “Bringing business and unions together at the enterprise bargaining table, with productivity gains as a focal point, is the only way we can increase both profits and wages without inflationary pressure.”
Such a concept is a dangerous illusion for workers. How are wages boosted through increased productivity? There are no mechanisms guaranteeing that the gains from increased productivity flow to workers rather than profits.
The Accord in its subsequent stages, when the focus shifted from industry to enterprise bargaining, began the process of trading off concrete working conditions in return for wage rises. This resulted in loss of working conditions such as reductions in manning levels, longer working hours, loss of paid breaks, and new enterprise “flexibility” measures.
Wage rises were not only part-funded out of productivity increases, but profits were enhanced and wage rises eroded by inflation. At the same time the shift to enterprise bargaining away from industry agreements weakened the bargaining power of trade unions.
Wage rises resulting from productivity increases are like wage rises from increased profits – a few crumbs trickling down.
Productivity increases are usually the result of lower costs of production such as new capital-intensive technology, attacks on wages and working conditions, and reductions in the labour force.
With record profits there is no reason why wages could not be increased now without trade-offs if the government were prepared to intervene.
INCREASE THE WORKFORCE
Increasing the size of the workforce with skilled labour was another key area of the summit. This was a key demand of employer bodies. It is to be achieved through the employment of immigrants, international students, pensioners, and the funding of free TAFE places alongside more university places in key skill areas.
The Home Affairs Minister, Clare O’Neil, told the Summit that the government will lift the migration cap to 195,000. She emphasised that “one of Labor’s priorities is to move away from the focus on short-term migrants, toward permanency, citizenship and nation building.”
The Outcomes Statement says: “Implement the recommendations of the Migrant Workers’ Taskforce to tackle migrant worker exploitation.” This report, released in 2019 and carried out for the Morrison government lacks concrete changes that would protect migrant workers.
Steps will be taken to overcome the present backlog in visa applications. The government could have drawn on refugees and asylum seekers already in the country, but it did not.
The Outcomes Statement also says: “Encourage more migration from our region by reforming the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme and creating a new Pacific engagement visa.” In other words, poach workers from Pacific Island nations.
“Increase the duration of post study work rights by allowing two additional years of stay for recent graduates with select degrees in areas of verified skills shortages to strengthen the pipeline of skilled labour in Australia, informed by advice from a working group.”
“Extend the relaxation of work restrictions for student and training visa holders until 30 June 2023 to help ease skills and labour shortages.”
Pensioners will be allowed to earn an additional $4,000 a year before they incur a reduction in their $26,700 annual pension. The present income limit is $7,800. This is to encourage them back into the workforce. It is a trial measure for the remainder of 2022-23.
What pensioners need is a decent increase in the age pension!
Albanese also told the ACCI that: “A Labor government I lead will reinvigorate Australia’s enterprise bargaining system to promote productivity.”
What does that mean? Is it more trade-offs of conditions for wage rises along the lines of the 1980s-1990s Accord? The Outcomes Statement does not clarify this.
“Each month there is a new theory. But it’s time to face the truth. Our wages problem is because of the weak bargaining power of workers, ACTU Secretary Sally McManus wrote in an opinion piece in the Australian Financial Review (13-07-2021). “When workers try to bargain in Australia, it is like being tied to a chair and asked stand up when every arm and every leg is tied down.” Too true.
But it is hard to see how any outcomes of the Summit will change this situation. Without the repeal of existing repressive and punitive anti-union laws and the strengthening of trade union rights, workers will not have the bargaining power that they require.
“The Government will update the Fair Work Act to create a simple, flexible and fair new framework,” the Outcomes Statement says. The word “flexible” in relation to employers raises red flags.
It will ensure workers and businesses have flexible options for reaching agreements, “including removing unnecessary limitations on access to single and multi-employer agreements.” What does “unnecessary” mean?
The government has weakened its pre-election commitment multi-employer bargaining. It appears that enterprise bargaining will still play a major role where it is seen to be working now. Bargaining across multiple workplaces would appear to be limited to certain groups. The details are not spelled out.
The Business Council of Australia (BCA) remains strongly opposed to multi-employer bargaining.
There is a commitment to remove “unnecessary complexity for workers and employers, including making the Better Off Overall Test simple, flexible and fair.”
Employers are strongly opposed to the Better Off Overall Test (BOOT). BOOT requires the identification of terms in the agreement which are more beneficial, and the terms which are less beneficial, and then an overall assessment as to whether workers would be better off under the agreement than under the relevant award.
Prior to the elections, Labor was adamant that it was not up for negotiation. At the Summit, Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke softened his position as did the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU).
BCA chief executive Jennifer Westacott said: “Don’t get rid of the better off overall test, make it better, make it about better off overall not better off in every single circumstance.” Better for whom?
Westacott went further, proposing an enterprise agreement should replace the underlying award, getting rid of the “tremendous complexity” in the system and restore “what the Hawke and Keating plan was originally designed to do [in the early 1990s].”
“The Government will update the Fair Work Act to create a simple, flexible and fair new framework.” Details of this new framework were also not spelled out, but history shows that “simple” means loss of safeguards and “flexible” means flexible for employers. Watch this space!
GENDER AND MINORITY GROUPS
“Key to these outcomes are the objectives of full employment and growing productivity for the benefit of all Australians – they are at the centre of the Government’s economic agenda. This also means embedding women’s economic participation and equality as a key economic imperative.” (Outcomes Statement)
There are a number of proposals with some additional funding that would benefit women, Indigenous Australians, and disabled people. These include employment targets in the public service.
“Better embedding employment in National Disability Insurance Scheme plans, to ensure participants who want to work are supported to do so.”
The commitments in the Outcomes are noteworthy for their failure to:
- Increase social security payments
- Increase the minimum wage
- Increase wages of low-paid caring and hospitality jobs
- Protect visa workers
- Legalise right to strike
- Abolish right of entry permit system
- Repeal the $240 billion in tax cuts for the rich.