Thursday, December 3, 2009

Tony Abbott’s Work Choices

Well, that didn’t take long. Just two days on the job and already Tony Abbott is promising to bring back work choices. Although he refuses to use the phrase, and insists that he is not returning to the full catalog of elements which comprised the failed policy, he has indicated an enthusiasm for restoring individual workplace contracts. It is these contracts which formed the central plank of work choices, and which were the instrument by which rights and conditions were removed form workers whether they liked it or not. No matter whether they are called Australian Workplace Agreements or any other name, it was these individual contracts that were rejected by the people of Australia at the last election.

Mr. Abbott is quoted on the front page of the Herald as saying “Our policy will be to have freer, more flexible and fair labour markets without going anywhere near that dreaded policy that must not speak its name.” But he also made it clear that such a policy includes a place for individual workplace contracts, so what exactly is he talking about? Individual contracts can be appropriate in the case of individuals who command negotiating power because they have a specialist skill or a unique talent. Bert Newton for example might have a contract with Channel Nine because he is a unique talent and there is only one Bert Newton. He cannot simply be replaced by another person playing the part of Bert Newton.

The same can be said for high value individuals who have specific skills or abilities, such as a specialist engineer or a technical expert, where having the right individual for the job makes a material difference to the results. However, the same cannot be said for process workers, fruit pickers, sales clerks, construction workers and so on. In those cases, if one individual leaves, another is found to replace him to perform essentially the same function. The distinction is that the position is defined by the work performed, not by the individual performing it. In such circumstances, it is only fair and reasonable to have a standard minimum set of pay and conditions, which apply no matter who fills the position.

This truth is reflected by the reality that so called individual workplace contracts are in most cases not individual at all. It would be an enormous waste of time and resources for a company with 2000 employees all doing the same job to sit down and negotiate unique individual contracts with every single one of them. Instead, a template contract is drawn up and presented to all of the employees, whose only choice in the matter is to either sign up or not have a job. Far from offering choices, such agreements reduce an individual worker’s choices, along with his bargaining power.

When Tony Abbott talks about flexibility in the labour market, just ask yourself “flexible for whom?” Obviously the ability to unilaterally reduce pay and remove conditions is more flexible for the employer, but it offers no flexibility for the employee, along with no security, and no choice. It’s a one way street that reloads the power balance to favour the big corporate entity against the insignificant individual deprived of the assistance of that other corporate entity, a union. Make no mistake. When Tony Abbott is talking about restoring individual contracts he is talking about returning to work choices, no matter what name he wants to give it.


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