A CHARACTERISTICALLY DESTRUCTIVE proposal from ACTU head Ged Kearney for casual employees to be made permanent would disadvantage workers, reduce employment, add cost and administrative burdens to business, and destroy more of the precious little flexibility left in the industrial system in the wake of the Rudd-Gillard government. Yet again, the ACTU seeks to harm the workers it claims to represent in its crusade against business.
You can say what you like about Bob Hawke — and I’m no fan, just to be sure about it — but at the very minimum, his tenure as head of the ACTU in the 1970s was marked by at least the attempt to strike some kind of consensus between business and labour and, unlike a lot of unionists before and since, Hawke at least understood that hard reality meant industrial outcomes had to benefit both employer and employee: even marginally, and however grudgingly, where business was concerned.
It says much about the post-1996 union movement and the old-style, inflexible Fair Work regime it extracted from the last ALP government just how far the pendulum of union focus has swung, with plenty of evidence that ingrained anti-business union mentalities have cost tens of thousands of jobs in recent years.
I could be talking about the demise of the car industry, for example, where EBAs stuck in “good” faith by unions priced their workers out of their markets and led to the big car manufacturers abandoning Australia as a place to make cars; or I could be talking, for example, about the stout refusal of unions to budge on things like weekend penalty rates for restaurant workers that can see hourly rates in the vicinity of $60 per hour payable on Sundays, with the direct consequence that increasing numbers of hospitality businesses are choosing not to open on Sundays at all in our supposed “24 hour world economy” because it is simply too expensive to do so.
Yep, those unions have looked after the jobs — and the interests — of their members in recent times, and the apparent mentality that no job is preferable to the one an employer is literally able to afford to provide has a lot to do with the results of the unions’ handiwork.
The latest shot in this misdirected campaign is set to be fired by ACTU president Ged Kearney — not a patch on Hawke, of course, or those such as Simon Crean who followed him — with a submission to the Fair Work Commission that casual staff be made into permanent employees.
I will leave it to readers to go through the article to which I have linked; this morning’s post will be a relatively quick one, as I am going to be otherwise busy for most of the day. But this great new idea raises far more questions than it purports to answer, and I suspect the redoubtable Ms Kearney is happy to revel in the “we’re standing up for exploited workers” signal this sends but would struggle to provide meaningful (or satisfactory) answers to any of those questions.
The most obvious of which is an answer to the charge — made by Kate Carnell, the CEO of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry — that for many businesses, if they couldn’t use casuals, they wouldn’t use anyone.
Does Kearney think she can legislate the behaviour of business? Does she think big, blunt and counter-productive instruments like the Fair Work Act can deliver tokenistic outcomes that make for good headlines whilst eschewing responsibility for the cost? And does she think legislative and executive amendments to industrial instruments can radically alter the nature of business simply to fit the agenda of her anachronistic union movement?
Who knows. But the fact she stipulates her proposed changes would not apply to “genuine casuals” such as students working “irregular shifts in bars or restaurants” tends to suggest Kearney is at least aware of just how destructive what she advocates could be in terms of the employment market. Or perhaps it’s simply a pre-emptive measure to insulate those industries already placing existential burdens by way of penalty rates from the additional lunacy for which she now says she wants to fight.
What I want to know is which causal employees in particular have pleaded with the ACTU for their hourly wages to be cut, given these currently include loadings of about 25% to offset the fact no annual leave, sick days or other benefits provided to permanent employees. The flipside is that casuals take this money home in their pay upfront, and rely on it when planning out their expenditure and savings. How is Kearney planning to explain an effective 25% wage cut to these people?
She claims her “initiative” applies to those casuals “who genuinely work permanent hours,” but who is the union movement to dig deeper into the circumstances surrounding those arrangements and/or to impose unilateral change to them irrespective of the situation of each business and/or employee?
What does Kearney propose businesses who need to take on seasonal workers do — give these workers, often travellers and students who will leave the country soon enough, employment agreements that confer benefits like holiday pay and long service leave that will never be used?
Some businesses, especially those struggling to survive, or adversely affected by other market forces, may simply not be in a position to provide permanent, guaranteed employment; others — such as government departments in hiring freezes, for example, as has been the case in Victoria for some time — are not in a position to take on permanent employees at all, yet those who join these organisations get significantly more each week in their take-home pay than those on full employment contracts. What is Kearney’s solution? That unions run the employment and personnel functions of these bodies?
Some workers are perfectly happy to accept regular casual employment in the knowledge there will be no paid leave, for whatever reason. How does Ms Kearney propose to explain to these individuals that her union is acting in their best interests by destroying the conditions under which they prefer to work?
There is a greater burden on businesses in terms of administration, payroll management and compliance with a roster of permanent employees that does not exist compared to the better suitability — again, for whatever reason — of providing causal employment within their business models. Is Ms Kearney happy for these businesses to close, at the cost of whatever jobs they nonetheless provide, if the difference in the burden is too wide for them to cover?
And more broadly, where business has a short-term but intensive need for additional labour that permanent employment is an ill fit for, the changes Kearney apparently advocates might see them opt simply to increase the workload of their additional employees, and hire nobody extra at all. How does that reconcile with the advancement of either the conditions of the existing employees, or the employment prospects of those who might otherwise join their ranks?
I could go on, but as I said, today’s post is more of a discussion starter than any comprehensive analysis. But I would make the observation that once again, the unions — under Kearney’s stewardship — seem to be embarking on a tangent that sounds great from the PR perspective of their anti-business agenda, but which falls down badly when the inevitable pitfalls are exposed, questioned, and prove unable to be satisfactorily resolved.
What is that union rallying call — a claim to support “your rights at work?” With friends like these, Australia’s unions represent the last thing the country’s workers need when it comes to thrashing out the finer points of their employment arrangements.