While public debate on how Australia should best respond to the ongoing economic and public health crisis is important and necessary, calls by Morry Bailes and business groups to upheave our workplace laws are short-sighted, self-interested, and harmful to millions of Australians.
With the curve well and truly flattening across Australia, the public debate on how Australia should best respond to the ongoing economic and public health crisis is important and necessary.
However, whilst it is not a surprise, it is shameful that this health crisis is seeing the old attacks on the rights of working people re-emerge under the guise of “flexibility”.
This is nothing more than an opportunistic effort to send our industrial relations system back to the dark ages of WorkChoices.
Using the ‘flexibility’ catch cry to justify scrapping Australia’s system of industry awards – the safety net that millions of Australian rely on – is just plain wrong.
Abolishing awards means stripping away basic rights and protections from everyday working Australians.
Fair grievance procedures, paid tea breaks, compensation for working public holidays and regular rosters that provide stability could all be gone under such a proposal.
To understand how critical our industrial safety net is, you just need to glance at the United States – where many are scrambling to build the basic worker protections needed to mitigate the devastating effects of this public health crisis.
Many US workers have continued to show up to work even though they had COVID-19 symptoms. With no paid sick leave and an unliveable hourly minimum wage of $7.25, these workers have been left with no choice but to continue to work and spread the virus.
To make matters worse, a worker at an Amazon fulfilment centre in the US was fired for raising legitimate health and safety concerns when workers tested positive to the virus.
Without unfair dismissal laws or fair grievance procedures, health and safety whistleblowers have been disciplined and all Americans have suffered.
This proposal to strip back our industrial laws in the face of this is not only unfair to workers, it is bad public policy.
While Morry Bailes and other commentators believe today’s politicians lack the guts to reform our “outdated and over-complex” industrial system, what they fail to recognise is that Australian politicians heard the message loud and clear at the 2007 federal election.
The Australian people unequivocally rejected John Howard’s un-Australian Workchoices legislation, which proposed abolishing awards, and overwhelmingly stood up for an industrial relations system with decent minimum standards. The Australian people have done this time and time again.
Our unique industrial system has been a staple of the Australian way for more than 100 years and it sets us apart from the rest of the world.
Our conciliation and arbitration system and its industrial tribunal were a response to the economic and industrial upheaval of the 1890s, and the decisions from these bodies helped promote universal workplace rights and protections that are the envy of much of the world.
While our system is unique in nature, this does not automatically make it anachronistic or inherently unproductive. It has actually helped entrench an important Australian value in our legal and economic system: fairness.
Moving towards the American approach to wages and conditions without a safety net would be irresponsible and ultimately self-defeating.
It would be senseless to dismantle our basic workplace protections just as other countries, like the United States, desperately look for ways to protect essential workers who continue to service those lucky or wealthy enough to be able to work from the safety of their homes.
During the Great Depression – the last economic downturn of this magnitude – the United States recognised that it was both socially unconscionable and unsustainable to continue to deprive its citizens of the workplace protections and a social safety net they needed to survive.
This led to the New Deal reforms which finally gave Americans basic rights such as the minimum wage, overtime and the ability to collectively organise – rights we had won decades earlier.
History tells us that reform is necessary. Inaction would be irresponsible in the face of this crisis so we must adapt and respond.
But reform should not come at the expense of diminishing basic protections for Australian workers and their families during this difficult and distressing time.
Australia should instead respond by looking at ways to stop the decline of enterprise bargaining and instead focus on how enterprise agreements can better interact with the safety net in awards. Reforming the better off overall test would be one way this could be done.
Dismantling Australia’s system of industry awards and the basic protections they provide for millions of workers would be a callous and irresponsible decision.
The race to the bottom is not a viable plan for long-term economic recovery and it has no place in Australia – the land of the fair go.
To ensure Australia can get back on its feet, we need to treat this economic crisis, like we have the health crisis. We need unions, governments, businesses, workers and employer groups to come together to work towards a common goal and protect what has made Australia a great place to live and work.
If we work to revamp our economy in isolation from one another, there will be winners and losers.
We do so much better when we all work together.
Working Australians should not be the victims of an economic reform; we must ensure all boats rise together.
Josh Peak is secretary of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association and junior vice president of the ALP’s SA Branch.
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