Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Flogging The Dead Horse Of Work Choices

It appears that the federal opposition simply cannot resist flogging the dead horse of Work Choices. Liberal Leader Malcolm Turnbull has refused to rule out a return to individual workplace contracts, saying that “By reducing flexibility in the workplace they have put, we would say, real constraints on productivity growth.” He went on to say “We believe that flexibility in the workplace is of enormous importance.” The trouble with that however is that individual contracts do not necessarily ensure flexibility in the workplace, just as Work Choices did not offer workers greater choices, but in fact reduced their choices.

That’s not to say that individual contracts are always intrinsically bad, or that they do not have a possible place in the workplace. Individual contracts can work well for workers who command a strong negotiating position. The evidence has been seen in the high rates of pay available in industries grappling with a shortage of skills and booming demand, such as the mining sector when the resources boom was running hot. However, if the individual worker does not command a strong negotiating position, he essentially has no choice at all but to sign whatever contract is offered. That’s why a return to a strong framework of award rates and conditions has been essential to guaranteeing a fair go for employees.

Yet, Mr. Turnbull persists with the argument that what he calls flexibility promotes productivity growth. The truth is that it does, but it all depends on how you define flexibility and productivity, and how you measure the economic outcome. If all that matters is that you achieve maximum output at minimum cost, then it is plain common sense to see that making employees work longer for lower pay will achieve exactly that. The company bottom line looks terrific, and the gross national product looks impressive so long as there are still enough jobs to keep unemployment under control, but one crucial factor is completely overlooked. That is the question of just who it is that enjoys the benefit of that productivity growth.

The fact that the economy might be powering along pumping out terrific growth figures doesn’t do much to reassure workers who are not participating in the benefits of that prosperity because they have been forced to sign work agreements that leave them out in the cold. Instead, it is the big companies, the directors, the executives and the shareholders who prosper because they have the benefit of the bargaining power in any contract negotiation. The idea that individual workers experience any kind of “choice” when negotiating with a corporate giant, or even a medium sized enterprise, is utterly ridiculous.

The fact of the matter is that a company, whether it is a major corporation or a modest business, is a collective entity with resources much more massive than any individual. It is a different kind of collective from unions or co-operatives or other entities, but it is a collective. It might be considered collectivized capital, just as unions are considered collectivized labour. The idea that reducing the power of collectivized labour could somehow make the system fairer is just simply wrong because the individual worker is quite clearly at a disadvantage.

The idea that it is more productive is also dubious, because if the economic system hacks the heart out of workers entitlements it begins to undermine its own foundation. In a consumer economy, the consumer is himself an essential commodity. Without consumers, the consumer economy crumbles, and that leaves all those politicians, bureaucrats, directors, executives, and shareholders who thought they were being so smart cutting costs and boosting productivity with nothing to sustain their own existence. The bottom line is that if the benefits of economic prosperity are not shared among all who participate in that economy, it can only be sustained by oppression. That is not what a free and democratic society is supposed to be all about.


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