The Guardian November 14, 2001


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."

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