The Employment Minister Eric Abetz has ruled out changes to the minimum wage and penalty rates, but trade unionists and the Greens remain unconvinced.
In recent weeks there has been widespread speculation over how the government might use a Productivity Commission investigation in to the workplace relations framework to attack workers’ rights.
But yesterday Senator Abetz expressed ‘surprised’ when the commission announced last month it would use its inquiry to examine whether penalty rates and the minimum wage should be lowered or replaced, The Australian Financial Review reported this week.
“It did surprise me because the government’s position on this is very clear,” Abetz said.
“These are matters for the Fair Work Commission and I just hope that those two issues have not taken away from the other systematic issues we want examined.”
The commission is due to hand down its once in a generation report, which will examine the overall workplace relations system, in November this year ahead of the next federal election, and the government has committed to seeking a mandate at the polls before making any changes.
Despite the assurances, the trade union movement has maintained that the government intends to cut penalty rates and the minimum wage.
Ged Kearney, President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, said Abetz’s attempt to distance himself from employers’ calls for business-friendly changes to the industrial relations system are ludicrous.
“The fact is the Abbott Government is doing everything it can to support employers going after penalty rates and wages under the Fair Work Commission’s review of award agreements,” Kearney said.
“On one hand, Eric Abetz is saying the Government won’t use the Productivity Commission inquiry into workplace relations to cut penalty rates and the minimum wage.
“But on the other Tony Abbott is blaming penalty rates for his hotel restaurant being closed on a Sunday – which was later discovered to be untrue,” Kearney said.
Kearney called on the government to prove it “is serious about protecting wages, conditions and rights at work” by lodging submissions to that affect with the Productivity Commission and Fair Work Commission.
The Greens’ industrial relations spokesperson, Adam Bandt, also “suspects that the attack on penalty rates and the minimum wage isn’t dead but just resting”.
Bandt said The Greens will “test” the Coalition’s commitment in the Senate next week with a motion calling on the government to direct the Productivity Commission to exclude the minimum wage and penalty rates from its inquiry.
“The productivity Commission should immediately stop a now pointless inquiry into these matters,” Bandt said.
The union movement will no doubt be watching to see how the government responds to The Greens’ motion as it ramps up pressures on the government in preparation for a national day of action next month.
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