by Ed Husic
It's time for some mythbusting.
It's time for some mythbusting.
Australians have grown up with the accepted notion we're a laid back bunch of people. We enjoy our beaches, barbies and footy. And we all tell ourselves "we work to live, not the other way round".
Who's feeling they're living up to the national expectation?
When it comes to work/life issues, it seems like other countries are doing their best to “out-Aussie” us.
For example, apart from the Koreans, it’s claimed Australians work longer hours than anyone else in the world — an average of 1855 hours per year. And, amazingly, we're doing a lot of that for free.
Often our longer hours translate as unpaid overtime - combined with stats that show the proportion of workers spending more that 45 hours a week increased from 18 per cent in 1985 to 26 per cent in 2001.
The standard 9 to 5 job is becoming our equivalent of the horse drawn cart.
At the same time, we're seeing increasing casualisation of work - back in the 1960s 90 per cent of workers held full time jobs. By 2002 that stood at 61 per cent. At what point will it be before half our workforce is casualised? 2012?
While some people will use the part-time opportunities to bring in an income while raising a family, many others are obviously stringing part time jobs together to scoop up the equivalent of a full time wage.
"Longer hours, casualisation and under-employment have all contributed to a growing crisis in the family," according to UNSW's Associate Professor David McKnight.
McKnight examines this issue in his book "Beyond Right and Left" where he talks about "weightless corporations" that have as few real (full-time) employees as possible, along with lots of casual and contract workers and numerous outsourced services.
There’s no arguing we've all seen the growth of the economy over the last 17 years that's lifted incomes and made us all more prosperous.
Material wealth has become more widespread - but the spread hasn't been even in any way that could be described as fair.
The old school argument about "income redistribution" is considered truly old school.
It doesn't pull the heart strings like it once did, especially when we're buying the second or third big screen TV and have DVD players in our shiny 4WDs.
But the argument isn't even about distributing wealth - it's about stopping the transfer of money from employees' pay-packets to company profits (remembering the hefty executive bonuses that come with that achievement).
For example, according to the ABS National Accounts the share our economic growth and wealth that is snared by profits is at its highest level in 50 years. Meanwhile, the wages share of the economy is at its lowest in 43 years.
This is no freak coincidence.
One simple answer for this is that our workplace laws that have gone out of their way to make life tough for employees to hold on to things like penalty rates, improve their opportunities for full time work, or stem the flood of outsourcing and casualisation that has swept through this country more than many others.
Because companies try to weather out public criticism about these things, I'm firmly convinced you can only bet on black letter law if you want to see this change.
And there's no better place to start than the current consideration of the Government’s proposed workplace laws, titled the Fair Work Bill.
While I have an enormous amount of time for Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard I think we have more to do in workplace reform. And for the record I cringe every time I hear the government line “we have the balance right".
We haven't achieved balance. It's going to take some time to reach that. I know I'm arguing something that will be unpopular in some government quarters, but there’s a lot at stake here for working families and the case for better laws has to be made.
There are some good things in their new laws, no doubt, but I'm not the only union official who thinks the new laws will only go part of the way to bringing back balance in the workplace - let alone work/life balance.
And when you take into account that wage agreements last for years, and turning things around in workplaces takes time, unionists feel an acute sense of urgency to make the proposed laws stronger, more effective and fulfill the expectations of our members when they cast their ballots in 2007.
In a nutshell these are the key issues to consider:
• These laws won’t lift the red tape that weighs down wage negotiations, preventing employers and employees determining the shape of their own enterprise agreements. This is despite the fact that Labor’s own election policy said: "Under Labor's system, bargaining participants will be free to reach agreement on whatever matters suit them."
• Add to this there will be reduced scope to get independent umpires like Fair Work Australia to sort out tricky disputes between management and labour - along with the fact that employees will also still have to jump hurdles to take industrial action to protect their conditions.
• The laws keep in place the "compliance culture" manufactured by the last Government. Those laws wore down the ability of employees to argue for a better share of the wealth they helped create or defend the conditions that are important in managing their work/life balance.
This compliance culture is nurtured by a slavish reliance on "managerial prerogative" – companies make decisions about how they run themselves, no matter what.
That's rubbish. When corporate decisions affect work/life balance, degrade environments or weaken regional communities companies should be held to account, with "managerial prerogative" moderated - and remember governments are elected by popular will and should not exist to effect corporate representation alone.
If we could rely on "managerial prerogative" alone to keep us snug at night, why are we now frantically shovelling out government dollars to save national economies from the bad practices and decisions of the corporate sector?
In the meantime, before we even get to cutover over to the new laws, big companies like Telstra - which we have to confront daily - are looking to wring every last drop of John Howard's laws before they're changed in July.
As we speak Telstra is rolling out WorkChoice non-union agreements and when workers vote the agreements down, Telstra physically re-organises work groups to gerrymander support in a way that lets them get their deals up.
I know the phrase "industrial democracy" is now passe, but the concept of "democracy" still means something, right?
Overall, the stats paint a crystal clear picture of the state of our national life: work dominates.
Frankly the new Government should re-title their Bill the “Fair Work/Life Bill” and let's have a serious debate about how Australians can reclaim the mantle of a "carefree" and "easy going" nation.
Ed Husic ([email protected], 0437 371372) is the National President of the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union. He appears today before the Senate Inquiry into the Fair Work Bill.
19 February, 2009
19 February, 2009