United, We’re All About To Stand In Defence Of Workers’ Rights

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Rallies across Melbourne get underway today to demand better pay and conditions for Australian workers. Dr Dustin Halse will be proudly marching alongside them.

Today, tens of thousands of workers will be rallying across the Melbourne CBD in an effort to change the rules that governs our working lives here in Australia. Many of the people in my electorate of Ringwood will be waving flags and marching through our city streets, risking their jobs or at least a day’s pay. I will be proud to march beside these brave members of my community, but it is worth remembering why this rally and this campaign is occurring – and why it is worth the risk.

There are two reasons why it’s imperative that workers take the risks and campaign to change the rules: one economic and one political.

The economic argument highlights the fact that for the better part of 30 years, wages have stagnated, income inequality has increased and the worker’s share of our collective profits have shrunk. The political argument boils this down into a single statement: it is not fair and it is particularly un-Australian.

It’s not fair that unscrupulous employers can steal the wages from young people to make themselves richer. It’s not fair that employers go unpunished when their negligent practices lead to the deaths of workers in their care. It is not fair that multinational billion dollar companies are able to penalise workers for taking bathroom breaks. It’s not fair when women fear the repercussions of speaking out about sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. It’s not fair that migrant workers can be kept in slave-like conditions, where employers threaten them with deportation.

While right wing commentators are quick to say that these experiences are exaggerated and that wages have been growing, the lived experience of everyday Australians is increasingly precarious. Since John Howard’s election in 1996, Australian workers have had to live their lives within a political landscape that has been dictated by the needs of large corporations and the billionaires who own them.

Successive federal tax breaks have taken millions of dollars out of public coffers, meaning that there has been less money to spend on services like hospitals and schools, and less resources for the statutory bodies that regulate workplace legislation, monitor workplace safety and investigate corruption.

The policy reforms that regulate the lives of working people have been loosened to allow businesses to profit at the expensive of their employees’ wages, conditions and safety.

What this suggests is that our prevailing economic and industrial system needs to modernise in line with the experience and reality of ordinary workers. That’s why the upcoming federal election has become a key battleground for the ACTU’s Change the Rules campaign – it was political action that lead to the decline in wage growth and it is political action that has the potential to reverse this trend.

The ACTU is making the case for a change by proposing four key reforms that will promote wage growth, protect the interests of working people and provide a platform for greater inclusion, fairness and equality within our society.

First, we need to reform the way employment is offered to ensure that job security is built into employment contracts. While flexible work arrangements will always form a necessary component of our labour market, we increasingly need to place limits on when and where non-standard working arrangements (such as temporary, labour hire and casual employment) can be used. New legislation could encourage businesses to hire more workers that are permanent and provide greater security for those currently in their employ.

Similarly, governments should be ensuring that those non-standard working arrangements receive the same working entitlements as permanent workers (e.g. sick leave, public holidays, and minimum wage entitlements).

When a worker is consistently working 30 hours a week but has no access to sick leave or annual leave, it is hard to believe that they are a “casual” employee. Therefore, it is imperative that any future federal government reforms our workplace legislation to remove the financial incentive to employ workers in non-standard arrangements and stabilise working arrangements.

Second, we must legislate to ensure that all workers have fair and reasonable wages. The ACTU recommends restoring penalty rates for the 700,000 retail, hospitality, fast food and pharmacy workers who have lost them, centrally setting the minimum wage at 60% of the median wage, and giving unions more freedom to bargain collectively for wages and conditions.

By allowing trade unions to bargain at the firm level, across a supply chain or even an entire industry, workers will be able to standardise wages and conditions, ensuring that no matter where you work, you will receive the same treatment. This will also provide much needed certainty for prime contractors, who can be assured that their subcontractors are playing by the same rules they are.

Third, we have to make sure that any rights granted to working people are enforceable and have strong penalties for contravention. This includes greater resources, independence and powers for regulators like the Fair Work Commission and state-based health and safety institutions. By giving these bodies the power to properly investigate, prosecute and sanction unscrupulous operators, we can ensure that anyone who breaks the rules, faces the consequences.

Finally, there is a great need to give working people greater power within the system. This step requires a number of systemic and institutional changes, such as reforming the way Fair Work Commissioners are appointed, dismantling the punitive Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) and Registered Organisations Commission (ROC), and ensuring that businesses must pay out workforce entitlements before shareholders when closing their doors.

If all four steps are followed, then working people will be protected and our economy will prosper. Yet there has been little response from the current government.

Scott Morrison is proposing to promote wage growth by offering tax cuts and assistance for small business. They believe that by reducing the amount of money that firms pay into the Government’s coffers, then businesses will be able to spend this money on wage increases and hiring more employees. However, there is little evidence that businesses will pay these tax cuts forward.

Conversely, it seems that Federal Labor under Bill Shorten has been paying close attention to the Change the Rules campaign, and have already committed to regulating casual work, providing basic  entitlements for non-standard employment arrangements, legislating penalty rates, increasing the bargaining rights of workers, abolishing the ABCC and the ROC, and introducing tough penalties for employers who break workplace laws. These come off the back of similar announcements made by Daniel Andrews and my state Labor colleagues, to regulate wage theft and labour hire here in Victoria.

However, these commitments are not a coincidence – they have been made because of the rising pressure created by millions of working Australians campaigning to change the rules.

That is why so many are willing to risk the punishments that their employers hold over them. They know that change only happens when working people stand together to make it happen, and I will be proud to stand beside them today.

Dr Dustin Halse

Dustin Halse is the Victorian state Labor MP for Ringwood. He previously was a trade union official and an academic fellow at Swinburne University of Technology.

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