By Mehroz Siraj
Treasurer Joe Hockey’s written request to the Productivity Commission, asking it to conduct a wide-ranging review of Australian workplace laws and cultures has drawn serious criticisms and condemnations from Australia’s political and business fraternities.
Last week, in a letter addressed to the Commission, the Treasurer asked the independent organization to conduct an impartial review of the Fair Work Act of 2009, which was signed into law by the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd.
In the letter, Treasurer Hockey wrote that the main government objective behind initiating this review was to enable the Commission to study and analyse the impacts of Australia’s current workplace laws on employees, employers, small businesses and the country as a whole.
As per the issued directives from the Treasury, the Commission’s scope of research and investigation would be diverse and broad, as it would be reviewing many aspects of Australia’s current workplace laws and practices.
The federal government and the Coalition lawmakers have repeatedly insisted that the review would not lead to a subsequent withdrawal of the Fair Work Act.
However, the federal opposition and trade unions believe that the review is just another way of bringing former Prime Minister John Howard’s WorkChoices law back to life.
During the Howard era, employers could negotiate individual employment contracts with prospective employees and were not legally required to give overtime and penalty wages to workers.
These contracts were commonly referred to as Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs), which were abolished and banned under the Fair Work Act.
Trade union leaders and federal opposition politicians believe that the government and the treasury would use the Commission’s platform to put forward its case for the resurrection and reinstatement of the WorkChoices.
In a recent opinion column for The Melbourne Age, Jess Walsh of United Voice, a Victoria based trade union, said that proposals such as those that abolished penalty payments and gave employers greater dominance in negotiating employment contracts would not be viewed favourably by many Australians.
United Voice is an organization that represents the nurses and other paramedical staff who work at hospitals in Victoria.
“These changes amount to an effective revival of John Howard’s hated and unfair Australian Workplace Agreements (AWA),” she wrote.
“The Coalition wants to allow these contracts to undercut the award safety net and pay us less,” she wrote, adding that nurses and other medical staff were amongst those 4.5million Australians who are currently claiming penalty wages because they are working outside of the normal working hours.
If the federal government went ahead with its plans of abolishing penalty wages and allowing employers to individually negotiate workplace contracts, most paramedical staff working at Victorian hospitals could lose up to 25 per cent of their annual wages, Walsh alleged in that article.
Similar views were espoused by the president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), Ged Kearney.
Disagreeing with Minister Hockey’s remarks that the review would be in-depth, fair and impartial, Kearney told the Australian Associated Press that the review was just another way disguising the government’s political rhetoric as in-depth policy.
”Everything is up for grabs: awards, penalty rates, enterprise bargaining, protection from unfair dismissal. The inquiry means that all the elements of WorkChoices that people hated are back on the table, including individual contracts,” Kearney said.
Kearney said that the terms of reference of Minister Hockey’s letter and the scope of investigation that the Privatization Commission could utilize, confirmed the government’s loyalties towards big businesses.
She further argued that by instigating this review, the Abbott government officials had confirmed to all Australians that their industrial relations policies would take back all forms of employment protections that currently exist in the country.
”It confirms that the Abbott government is determined to weaken the industrial relations system that protects Australian workers and is part of their overall plan to undermine their take-home pay and decent standard of living,” she said.
According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald last week, the Coalition government delayed the announcement of the review in light of the impending state elections in Tasmania and South Australia.
Senior ministers within the Abbott government believed that an earlier announcement about the review could be used by the Greens and the Australian Labor Party (ALP) as a means to launch a sustained political assault on the Coalition’s workplace relations policies in those two election states, the paper said.
This political gimmick of the government was however slammed by the federal opposition.
Opposition workplace spokesman Brendan O’ Connor told the parliament last week the Abbott government was deliberately hiding the real consequences and costing of its workplace relations policies.
”Tony Abbott knows workers will lose as a result of his Productivity Commission review, that is why details are being kept secret until those elections are run and won,” he said.