This year has started on a worrying note with Government Ministers blaming workers for receiving a decent, fair, living wage
Industrial Relations Minister Eric Abetz recently said: “We risk seeing something akin to the ‘wages explosions’ of the pre-Accord era, when unsustainable wage growth simply pushed thousands of Australians out of work”.
This belittles the very essence of what it is to be Australian.
There can be no mistaking the change of direction in industrial relations policy since the swearing in of the Abbott Government.
Since September, this Federal Government has blatantly blamed the workforce for the economic difficulties facing many companies and the huge structural changes taking place in our economy.
Right now it is too easy for the majority of Australians to ignore the protestation from unions at suggestions of reducing wages.
Pay and conditions at risk
Manufacturing industries are being asked to alter the terms of their hard-won enterprise bargaining agreements to reduce their pay and conditions on the promise that it will preserve their working future. And yet, the case of Holden tells us that a workforce willing to make a sacrifice to keep their jobs is not a workforce rewarded.
The same ask is now being argued in court over the pay and conditions for Toyota workers, with the Abbott Government taking the unprecedented step of backing the company over thousands of people whose mortgages and families will be effected.
And then late last week, after the Government again put thousands of Victorian regional jobs in jeopardy by refusing a request from SPC Ardmona for $25 million in assistance for technological change, Abbott blamed workers for the company’s plight.
He went so far as to call for SPC to tear up its existing agreement with its workers and eliminate a range of conditions, including redundancy pay.
“I would invite you to have a flick through the existing enterprise bargaining agreement which as I said is way in excess of the Award,” he said.
Yet Abbott’s claims were contradicted by the local Liberal MP, Sharman Stone, who pointedly referred to a Productivity Commission report that found workplace practices at SPC were efficient and productive.
To hear the Industry Minister call safe and fair work place conditions “archaic” begs the question- are we prepared to slide backwards in industrial relations? Are we prepared to accept that our rights at work are up for renegotiation once more?
We also need to ask why we are letting the Federal Government and some of Australia’s largest companies malign working people?
Our union, the Australian Services Union (Private Sector Branch) proudly represents white-collar workers in varying industries – from call centres to airlines to law firms and community organisations.
The demands by employers that workers tighten their belts is not exclusive to manufacturing. Workers in professional, white collar industries are being asked to reduce their entitlements and accept pay rises below CPI, all the while there is no evidence to show directors and executives are prepared to make the same sacrifices.
Why aren’t executives taking a pay cut?
There is no suggestion in the media that companies should reduce the pay and entitlements of executives and directors to keep the costs of their company down, nor any calls for federal politicians to take a pay cut as a cost saving measure.
And let’s be clear. Many of the workers who are being asked to reduce their pay and entitlements are already earning the basic minimum wage and just above. The cost of living hasn’t decreased; a loaf of bread and a litre of milk cost the same for every Australian.
Yet Prime Minister Abbott and his crew want to widen the gap between working families and the rich.
Asking average wage earners in Australia to subsidise the loss of profits in large national and multinational companies isn’t just wrong, it undermines our very understanding of a fair go.
The fair go extends to our working life; it’s what makes living in this country uniquely liberating and globally enviable.
We need to have this conversation. We need to talk about the Australian economy and what sort of country we are going to be and where the sustainable quality jobs of the future will be created rather than the race to the bottom being advocated by the Abbott government.
Until we get to that point, workers will be the scapegoat of this new Federal Government’s tough industrial relations agenda.