Individual contracts: Pilbara workers claim victory
Five-hundred Pilbara iron ore workers have won a significant victory over their employer, BHP Billiton, on the issue of individual work contracts. In awarding the workers a 20 percent rise in pay and six per cent extra in superannuation contributions, the Western Australian Industrial Relations court last week effectively endorsed the principle that award-based employees must be paid no less than contract employees. The decision is not without some drawbacks for the workers and their unions, being in the form of productivity agreements, but is essentially a win for them. After the announcement of the ruling, BHP spokesperson John Crowley claimed with gritted teeth that the ruling would allow the company "to make substantial changes without the delays created by consulting unions." He neglected to mention that much of the necessary consultation within the last two years has arisen from the company's attempts to recruit contract workers by offering them initial extra inducements and thereby pitting them against award-earning union members. The Court ruling will remove this inducement and effectively constitutes a body blow to the contract employment system. In any case, Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) statistics have upheld long-standing claims by unionists that such "inducements" are often relatively short-lived, and that contract pay does not include certain components included in award wages. The ABS figures showed that on average, most workers on contract pay received between $100 and $193 less per week than award employees doing similar work. The decision has major implications for workers around Australia, and is a major blow to the Howard Government's attempts to force workers off the award rates and into a non-unionised contract system. ACTU Secretary Greg Combet noted that: "what this decision means is that BHP can't discriminate against workers who don't want to sign individual work contracts. Employers who try to induce workers onto individual contracts with big pay rises may find themselves having to pay the increases to all workers whether they sign or not."