Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Watch That Man, Australia

Stop John Howard and the sinister WorkChoices

Few would normally think of Australia in political terms. It’s the country of cricket (for those who can stomach it), beautiful nature, kangaroos and walkabouts, Kylie’s songs and Neighbours plots, Natalie Imbruglia’s looks and INXS, and the list goes on.

This time a boomerang hits downunder as a far more sinister name grabs the headlines: John Howard. It is with preoccupation that we watch their ultra neo-conservative Prime Minister conjuring up a fast-track return to the 19th century days of no worker protection, illegal unionisation and the creepy mantra of “take the job or take the sack”. Will it happen here next? Maybe with the neo-cons in the US paving the way for the Tories of the future?

Note the manipulative spin of John Howard’s “WorkChoices” legislation. He’s spending $100m (yes, you read correctly, a hundred million) of taxpayers’ money to back a massive advertising campaign saying that it will be good and it will be fair. But if Australians believe him at the next elections in 2007 then they’ll only have themselves to blame.

Because in actual facts Australian workers will have bugger all to choose as their employers will engage on a downward race to reduce welfare measures and slim down statutory agreements. Only 5 stipulations will be protected by Government law: annual leave, personal leave, unpaid parental leave, maximum ordinary hours and minimum wage. The rest will be a matter between you and your employer.

Dinner breaks, consecutive hours, pension schemes, redundancy packages, workplace accidents, paid parental leave, public holidays, unfair dismissal, and so forth are all at risk of being wiped out. Workers will have little to no say at all as they negotiate their contracts alone with their boss. Young people in search of first employment will be left to their own device in bargaining with all-powerful companies who will tell them that competition is fierce. And no, don’t think that you may look to your Trade Union for contractual bargaining or support because you’ll be disappointed.

In fact, the Howard government doesn’t stop there: Australian unions are going to be made redundant. Under “WorkChoices” legislation, employers will find it much easier to take court actions against those who strike so if you’re already struggling to pay your bills it’s unlikely you’d take the risk of paying enormous court damages to your employers for a walkout. Any court evidence of commercial damage would bankrupt ordinary workers. Also, unions’ access to the workplace will also be severely restricted and de-registering encouraged.

Yet what does Prime Minister John Howard come up with? “Go to another employer who will pay you better”. Oh yeah, sure. If a company tells you that if you want to work for them then there’ll be no breaks, no paid parental leave, no rules on dismissal, no cap on consecutive hours and no protection of any sort then Howard makes it plain: pack your stuff and look for work elsewhere.

Does this man seriously think that companies will voluntarily surtax themselves to provide benevolent awards to their employees while their competitors don't? What happens if that becomes the norm? What will take place is that bad contracts will become routine, people desperate for work will gradually settle for anything and the exploitation will start all over again, just like it was in the 19th century.

Of course Howard cites the usual plethora of world competitiveness, Australia having to avoid the unemployment route and “unleashing a new burst of productivity growth to secure our future prosperity”. Yet this is by far the most extraordinary attack to workers’ rights in history, taken to a level that not even those business-bashing paladins of unionism, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher had ever dreamt of.

If Australia is going to compete with China, India and low-wage economies then you can be sure that return to Dickensian times will be a disastrous strategy.

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