The value of the worker

Blond And Brunette Little Girls Laughing On Swing Together
Bakers Working

Article by Ursula Stephens, as published in Eureka Street

‘It’s the value of the work, not the worker.’ So said a government backbencher to me last week while I was speaking to him about the omnibus industrial relations (IR) Bill that has just passed the House of Representatives. 

He went on to argue that his friend owns a bakery in a regional town and for him to make money and ‘keep the town supplied with bread and pastries’ he should be allowed to strike an agreement with his workers, who are all casuals, and mostly teenagers and women, for a flat $10 per hour.

‘It’s about the value of the work that they are doing — it’s pretty unskilled work, and that’s all it’s worth — isn’t it better that they’re earning something, rather than nothing, and for the community to enjoy fresh bread and cakes with their coffee?’ 

He went on to tell me that his friend had been using this arrangement for years, until one teenager had the audacity to check out his entitlements with Fair Work Australia. The consequence was that the business was found to have owed significant money to current and former employees, ‘and how is that fair, when he’s creating and keeping jobs in that town?’ 

Such are the arguments we are hearing from those in support of the Amendments to the Fair Work Act, as part of the post COVID-19 economic recovery. The Bill is based on the assumption that our economic recovery is dependent on further degrading the rights and incomes of working people and entrenching casualisation of our workforce. 

The legislation is seeking key changes — the better off overall test (BOOT) has been withdrawn. I believe it was the furphy that was never going to be agreed and was there to give the government ballast in its negotiations. The other schedules have serious consequences for working men and women in Australia.

‘Fair and just employment terms and conditions remain constant in our social contract between government and society — as we work together for the common good.’

First, the Bill seeks to retrospectively legalise the unlawful use of ‘permanent casuals’ such as the exploited casual workers in the bakery and it expands the legal definition of a casual employee, which then makes it harder for them to access conversion to a permanent job. I have always believed that retrospective legislation has many unintended consequences, but this amendment has far-reaching impacts for long term casual workers, such as their capacity for borrowing, their superannuation and long service leave entitlements.

The second significant change relates to the modern award system. Twelve modern awards are identified in the Bill, and Schedule 2 of the Bill is directed at part-time employment and flexible work directions. The Bill is attempting to prescribe award conditions in the Fair Work Act that are completely at odds with the way the Fair Work Commission currently determines award conditions in an independent process.

This change would allow employers to pay ordinary time rates instead of overtime penalty rates when part-time employees work beyond their guaranteed minimum hours of work. For low paid workers, such as care workers, or those in hospitality industries, shift allowances, and overtime payments contained in the modern awards can be overridden, reducing some workers take home pay that is below the basic wage. Almost all modern awards of the Fair Work Commission specify that causal employees should receive a 25 per cent casual loading, in exchange for giving up paid leave, predictable and regular hours and the right to notice prior to termination. Research from the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Workplace Leadership, however, has found that the casual loading actually paid averages between 4 and 5 per cent, and some of our lowest paid workers are paid less than permanent workers and receive no casual loading. 

The Bill also proposes to allow employers to issue flexible work directions to an employee concerning their work duties and work location. This too relates to the 12 identified awards — so someone employed under the Meat Industry Award or the Pharmacy Industry Award, for example, could be directed to undertake double shifts, or travel to another workplace to retain their job. The Bill does not allow access to arbitration by the Fair Work Commission, unless the employer agrees.

The Bill also undermines the principles of enterprise bargaining by allowing employers to circumvent a proper, informed, collective bargaining process and instead seek agreement on terms and conditions of employment directly with employees. Just as the bakery owner had done for years — denying his workers fair pay for fair work. Under this Bill, the statutory requirements that currently govern enterprise agreements will be replaced with ‘a general obligation by employers to take reasonable steps’. All these changes seek to tip the balance in the favour of employers and businesses whose ambition is in maximising profit and minimising costs.

In our discussion paper Strong Economy, Stronger Australia: building our prosperity to serve the common good, CSSA has argued that it is in fact the value of the worker, rather than the work, that will help Australia recover from the economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. We believe that every Australian should be able to thrive in order to meet our nation’s potential and share a common roadmap to prosperity and recovery. Fair and just employment terms and conditions remain constant in our social contract between government and society — as we work together for the common good. The church’s teachings commit us to pursuing an economic system that is inclusive and just. It obliges the state to intervene in ways to ensure those without work can find work, and those in work receive fair pay and conditions that allow them and their families to thrive. 

Pope Francis has warned against viewing labour — people in work — as another commodity to be bought and discarded at will, when he said ‘we should have an economic system that values people as it values money.’ 

Yes, indeed, we need this discussion to be about the value of the worker… not the work.

Article source: Eureka Street, 25 February 2021

CSSA - Catholic Social Services Australia

Ursula Stephens is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.

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