Debunking the win-win myth
The claim that so-called "flexible" workplaces are a win-win arrangement for both workers and employers has been at the forefront of employer and government propaganda to deregulate Australia's workforce for more than a decade. A study by Alison Barnes and Dianne Fieldes* in The Journal of Industrial Relations, debunks the myth of the flexible workplace as a win for all by looking at its effect on the biggest and one of the most vulnerable sectors of the workforce, the hospitality industry. By definition, flexibility, an employer invention, entails the scrapping of fixed hours of work, the dumping of work conditions, the slashing of wages and, in the final analysis, the elimination of unions and collective bargaining: hardly a winning formula for workers. The introduction of enterprise bargaining during the previous Federal Labor Government laid much of the ideological groundwork for the promotion of the "flexible" workforce. It proclaimed the class struggle to be dead, a thing of the past that should no longer be a feature of workplace relations. This thinking remains prevalent today in the formulation of policy in the ALP and sections of the labour movement. Unions 2001, a report from the Evatt Foundation, says: "The long- term aim of workplace bargaining is to develop a new workplace culture based on flexibility, cooperation and democracy and the win/win principle of mutual benefits. "Workplace bargaining can — and should — be capable of achieving this." In the hospitality industry — which includes workers in hotels, motels, pubs, cafes and restaurants as well as such areas as theme parks and leisure tours — the push for flexibility came with rising demands for weekend and evening service provision. In order to reserve certain time as shared community, social and family time the unions sought penalty rates* and award provision coverage to stop that time being eroded. While a big part of the industry is made up of small-scale businesses, in terms of industrial relations it is the largest workplaces that are the pace-setters. It is these bigger employers who have spearheaded the push for such things as award stripping. Women predominate in semi-skilled and unskilled areas such as cleaning and waiting on tables. Only around one third of the workforce is employed for 35 hours per week or more. As a result of the low ordinary hourly pay rates, a short working week can result in very low earnings. A 1996 survey by the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers' Union (LHMU) found that 48 percent of female cleaners earned less than $186 per week. As Oliver Jones, a grade 1 housekeeper, told the union: "At present I earn $316.00 net per week. Twelve weekends a year I am rostered on which brings my wage up to $370.00 on those weeks: $316.00 only just covers my living expenses." Union membership has dropped in all industries, but in an industry that operates up to 24 hours a day, seven days a week and employs large numbers of casual workers, it is very difficult for a union to organise. With constantly changing shifts, contact is harder to maintain. High labour turnover is another impediment to recruitment and shop floor organisation. Women, migrants and young workers, who may be new to the workforce, often have little knowledge of their rights. The nature of the industry lends itself to employer intimidation. Ricjie Ramsahoye is a grade 2 food and beverage attendant at the ANA hotel in Sydney: "This ... fear of recrimination and future discrimination resurfaced when I discussed the issue of overtime with full-time employees at the ANA, particularly the chefs. "They told me that they would frequently work 55-60 hours per week, were not paid any overtime for the extra hours, were asked not to complete any routine authorisation forms, were told not to write down the overtime on their timesheets and were instructed to write down that they had taken a break after five hours even if they had not. "It was made clear to them that if they did not comply with these instructions, it would have a negative impact on their careers. "They were repeatedly informed that these work practices were part of the culture at the ANA, that unpaid overtime was `part of their job description'. Even those chefs who did write the actual number of hours worked on their timesheets were never paid for them." Flexible hours push Because working arrangements in the hospitality industry are often determined at the workplace, enterprise agreements have not been common. In 1998, less than a third of hospitality workplaces with 20 or more employees had any of their conditions regulated by certified agreement. Employers had found that award provisions had been sufficiently flexible to achieve what they wanted. Nevertheless, in the late 1990s the hospitality industry was at the forefront of a concerted move by employers for more flexible working hours. The vehicle chosen by the employers was the award simplification requirements, award stripping, in the Workplace Relations Act. The Act stipulated that by June 30, 1998, awards were to be simplified to 20 "allowable matters". Conditions of work deemed non-allowable would either lapse or be left to negotiation through enterprise or individual bargaining. In February 1997, the Australian Hotels Association (AHA), the major employer organisation in the sector, in conjunction with the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, applied to vary the Hospitality Industry — Accommodation, Hotels, Resorts and Gaming Award. The application was seen as a test case that would establish guidelines for the stripping of all awards. The AHA wanted 53 conditions removed from the award, including limits on overtime required, guaranteed minimum rostered hours a week for part-time workers, penalty rates and the union's rights of representation. The Federal Government and all the state governments, except NSW, supported the AHA's case in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. The LHMU strongly opposed the employer and government submissions, arguing that the Commission should maintain a safety net of "fair minimum wages and conditions". But the outcome was that the provisions placing limitations on part-time work, the requirement that employers consult with the union before introducing new technologies or redundancies, fixed ratios of juniors to adult staff, and a ban on bar staff cleaning toilets, were removed. All parties recognised the implications of the decision. It was not a win- win outcome but rather a significant victory for employers and a further undermining of workers' conditions and union power. The chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Mark Paterson, declared that it was "an important and welcome further step on the road to labour market reform". The then Workplace Relations Minister, Peter Reith, announced that the government would seek a mandate at the next election to further reduce the powers of the Commission and to introduce further deregulation. In March 1998, the Commission ruled against cutting penalty rates in the hospitality award. In the preceding months hospitality workers had picketed hotels, and hundreds attended a four-hour stopwork meeting held in Sydney. At a rally at the Novotel Hotel in Sydney, workers displayed the hotel's "dirty laundry" by painting messages on bed sheets setting out their opposition to the attack on their wages and conditions. Rosa Garcia, a laundry worker at the Hilton hotel, explained what penalty rates meant to her: "If the AHA application to reduce penalty rates is successful my wages will be adversely affected. "I need to work Sundays to supplement my low weekly wages to support my family although I would prefer not to work on Sundays. I and my family would not be able to survive on my wages." Class conflict The class conflict manifested in the award simplification process did not end when the decisions were handed down. Instead possibilities opened up for it to take a more overt form. Employers warned that they would explore alternatives to award stripping. The advantage of enterprise agreements to the industry was emphasised by Peter Reith when he reminded employers that "the fact of the matter is that In fact, when award stripping did not yield the desired result of dumping penalty rates, a number of the big hotel chains tested the water by trying to sign up workers on individual and non-union contracts. What dictates the direction of work hours, conditions and wages is not "efficiency" or "justice" but the relative strength of the parties and the industrial context in which the struggle occurs. In the hospitality sector, the needs of the employers clash directly with the needs of the workers. Promises of win-win outcomes in such situations where there is not a strong union presence are a smokescreen behind which workers have had their conditions stripped back. *Penalty rates: when employers are penalised by being required to pay higher rates of pay outside normal hours such as on weekends, public holidays, during night shift or for overtime — a disincentive to making workers work such hours and compensation to workers for the disruption to normal life.
* * *Alison Barnes and Diane Fieldes are researchers at the School of Industrial Relations and Organisational Behaviour, University of NSW.