Australia’s richest individuals recently gathered for the KPMG Couta Boat Classic in Victoria. The event has become an annual litmus test for what leading CEOs are prioritising for the following year.
Last year’s classic was headlined by JB Hi-Fi CEO, Richard Murray, stating that the abolition of weekend penalty rates would be a priority for corporate Australia in 2017. Unsurprisingly, 700,000 retail and hospitality workers last year copped the biggest pay cut since the Great Depression when the Fair Work Commission stripped away weekend rates in that sector.
This quaint yacht race on the Victorian coast is a meeting of the some of the country’s most powerful business people. More often than not, the things they want end up as Coalition Government policy.
This year the wishlist of corporate Australia can be summed up as follows: taxes are too high, energy is too expensive, and we need to cut wage growth for workers.
Ironically, if the captains of industry had just taken their yachts a little further offshore, they might have come across the gasfields of one of Australia’s worst corporate citizens, ExxonMobil.
ExxonMobil’s behaviour exemplifies many of the problems with the way corporate Australia is behaving.
In 2017, ExxonMobil reported its third consecutive year of paying no corporate tax. In these years, ExxonMobil generated $18 billion of revenue extracting Australia’s natural resources. This forgone revenue means there is less money to fund teachers and nurses, roads and public transport.
What’s more, the energy giant has been accused of holding the Australian energy market to ransom. As energy prices dominate the headlines, ExxonMobil sits on 2000 petajoules of undeveloped gasfields in Bass Strait.
Last year, it bought the Dory gasfield but has no plans to develop it. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is investigating whether Exxon and its joint venture partner, BHP, are delaying development of these fields to artificially inflate energy prices.
Inflated gas prices mean higher energy bills for consumers and risk jobs in energy-intensive sectors such as manufacturing. Last month, chemical giant Qenos announced it would cut its workforce by 15 per cent because of high energy prices.
If tax avoidance and market manipulation weren’t enough, ExxonMobil has also taken an axe to the wages of its workforce on the Longford onshore and offshore facilities. Two hundred workers have been campaigning for 200 days since being told they would have to take a 30 per cent pay cut.
ExxonMobil changed labour firms and re-offered long-term employees their jobs back at reduced pay, an all-too common strategy adopted by bad employers.
The ExxonMobil lesson is simple; when corporate power is left unchecked, workers suffer, consumers suffer, and Australia is worse off.
ExxonMobil isn’t alone. As we have seen at Griffin Coal, Streets Ice Cream, and Murdoch University, we can expect employers will again line up in 2018 to cut wages and conditions by exploiting our broken workplace laws.
Also, while wage theft continues to be treated the same as a parking fine, you can guarantee bad employers will get away with not paying their workforce the legal minimum.
Wage growth in Australia is at record lows. Workers and families are doing it tough. We need a government and business sector that is ready to confront the challenges of inequality.
We certainly don’t need lectures about frugality delivered from a yacht deck.
The New Year’s message for corporate Australia should be to pay its fair share of taxes and pay its workers a decent wage. If they won’t do it, then we need a government in Canberra that will change the rules to force them to.
Paul Bastian is the national secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union