By Lorraine Cassin
- This piece was first published by Print21
Former Liberal Senator from South Australia and Government Relations Director for the Print Industries Association of Australia (PIAA) Mary-Jo Fisher, recently commented on the Fair Work Act and the Fair Work Commission.
My union, the AMWU, does not expect to agree with employers in the industry on what is the best legislative framework for a fair industrial relations system. But we do think there are some things that both parties can agree on.
Currently, the Fair Work Act restricts industry-wide bargaining between employers and workers in individual industries. It’s bad for workers and bad for business. For businesses, it means that wages are always in competition. So a company that will pay employees $30 per hour is forced to compete with a company producing a similar product that pays their employees $25 per hour. It entrenches complacency because it doesn’t force companies to improve productivity or skills development which are the real keys to unlocking Australia’s competitive advantage in the market place.
Rogue employers have been using legal trickery to try to drive down the wages and conditions of workers and bypass the spirit of the Fair Work Act. Last year, workers at the Carlton and United Brewery were forced into a brutal six-month campaign after their employer unilaterally terminated their contract with a labour-hire firm and re-offered them their jobs with 65% less pay. At the Anglo-American coal mine in Collie, WA, workers face the prospect of a 40% wage cut after their employer successfully applied to unilaterally terminate their enterprise agreement and revert back to the Award.
Why should companies who do the right thing be forced to compete with unscrupulous employers who use legal loopholes to exploit their workers and get a competitive advantage on wages?
If we’re really interested in creating a decent industrial relations system that advances the interests of the printing industry, then we need to take legislative action to stop this kind of behavior by bad employers.
Recent scandals also highlight that the enforcement provisions of the Fair Work Act are seriously lacking. The shocking circumstances revealed at 7-11, Dominoes, and Bakers’ Delight demonstrate that there are potentially thousands of workers across the country who aren’t getting even the minimum wage. This is occurring in a climate where we have record low wages growth. It beggars belief that anyone could argue for a system that puts downward pressure on wages in the current economic climate.
We also think that it’s in employers’ interests that the National Employment Standards include ten days paid domestic violence leave. One-in-three women experience violence at the hands of a family member. Domestic violence leave will remove one of the obstacles that often discourage women from getting the help they need. It will give them time to attend court, organise crisis accommodation, attend medical appointments. It will give them the space and time they need to return to work.
It’s worth noting that Minister Michaelia Cash has been strident in her opposition to domestic violence leave. It would be interesting to know if Ms Fisher raised this with her former colleague in their recent meetings in Canberra.
But print workers have a few gripes of their own with the Fair Work Act that are unlikely to be agreed upon by employers and the PIAA.
For example, the provisions around industrial action are far too restrictive. The decision to take industrial action whether in the form of work stoppages, overtime bans, or other work restrictions is always a difficult one for workers. Workers will only use it as a last resort. But it is ridiculous that workers who decide to take industrial action are forced through a process that often takes several weeks to be able to proceed. The imbalance of the system is in full view when you consider that an employer can impose a lock out with just 72-hours notice. We’re experiencing that imbalance right now, as AMWU members at Parmalat in Echuca, Victoria face their fifth week of being locked out after they dared to take a four-hour work stoppage.
I’m not such a blind optimist that I believe that workers and companies in the printing industry will agree on everything. However, our respective members do expect us to approach this debate with maturity and with the best interests of our industry at heart. What they don’t want to see is a febrile debate based on blind ideology like the kind we see in Canberra right now. It’s our responsibility to take this debate outside the corridors of Parliament and into the workplaces of our industry.
So, while Ms Fisher does the hokey pokey around Parliament House, I’ll be talking to workers in their offices and factories about how can we improve this industry for the better.