My Restaurant rules! - thanks to cheap labour!
Last week the industrial relations debate found an unlikely forum in the reality TV show of "My Restaurant Rules" when the owners of the Sydney contender attempted to put their staff on AWA's (Australian Workplace Agreements) and cut their pay. Only after popular outcry did Channel 7 step in and reverse the decision. See SMH and the LHMU website for more information. (The LHMU is the union for hospitality workers)
This is a topical time to discuss industrial relations as working Australians are about to experience the most radical "reforms" to laws underpinning their basic employment terms and conditions in Commonwealth history. In my previous job I was employed under an AWA and have first hand experience on how AWAs undermine collective bargaining, the Award System, including access to penalty and shift allowances and allow the employer to impose and change employment conditions on the fly, without any need to consult or negotiate with employees.
After July 1 when it has control of the Senate, the Coalition Government will introduce Industrial Relations legislation that will override State Industrial Relations jurisdictions, further weaken the award system and make it easier for employers to impose AWAs. Since the first round of reforms in 1996, it was obviously hoped that AWAs would be the way forward for employers to opt out of awards and union agreements but the uptake has been disappointing. According to the Office of Employment Advocate (OEA) site since the introduction of AWAs in March 1997 there have been 635, 409 AWAs lodged and approved. The OEA is the certifying authority for AWAs. More about them later! As each AWA expires every two or three years, this figure does not even represent the number of people currently on AWAs. That figure is buried on page 3 of their confusing statistics pages and is 388,900. Given that there are over 10 Million working Australians that is not even 4% of the working population.
While it is not clear exactly what form all the reforms will take, I believe it is worth while going into some detail of what an AWA is and how AWAs actually operate in workplaces to get an insight into the types of employer / employee relationships the Coalition Government hopes to foster with their new reforms.
Language seems to be the key to understanding what is going on. The Industrial Relations (IR) changes are always headlined as "reforms" yet in reality they are a winding back of rights and conditions that we and our parents fought for. By "framing" them as reform it is an easier sell -only people who don't want to "move forward" are opposed to reform. See Hamish Alcorn's great piece in Webdiary regarding Lakoff's linguistic / cognitive frames.
Language has never been kind to workers: we are "employees" which implies passive recipients of work. Even worse in German: Arbeitnehmer = "work taker" = employee, Arbeitgeber = "work giver" = employer. Yet is it not we who are giving our labour to the boss? (These are Whorfian cryptotypes rather than Lakovian frames but that's another story!)
Ok let’s forget the fancy schmancy academic stuff. In simple terms the AWA framework uses comforting and familiar IR / HR type words such as "negotiation" "no disadvantage" to camouflage the real nature of the employee-employer relationships. As we shall see the employer can assign meanings and uses to these words that differ wildly from the commonly assumed meanings
So what is wrong with AWAs?
1) The negotiation myth. AWAs are supposed to be the result of individual negotiations between the employer and employee. In the brave new world of AWAs, "Do you want the job or not?" is now a negotiation. The OEA website proudly announces that no one can be coerced into signing an AWA but admit "New people joining the company can be offered the AWA as a condition of them taking the job. So they have less options." Less options??? Language slips and slides all over the place.
Even though current employees cannot be coerced into signing an AWA to take them off an award or certified agreement they are rarely invited into a genuine negotiation about their terms and conditions. I worked for TeleTech, the company that provides the inbound "help desk" call centre services for Telstra BigPond. When our first generation AWAs expired in 2003 we all had individual one-on-one meetings with HR "specialists" who explained to us that our new AWAs had been negotiated "on our behalf". When we asked with whom they had been negotiated; for example a committee of staff representatives? the union? no one could give us a straight answer. At one stage we were told they were negotiated with the OEA "But aren't they the certifying authority? Why would you negotiate with them?" Silence. In 2005 the employees at TeleTech are still waiting for an answer. Again "negotiation" takes on a new meaning - one so mysterious that even the HR “specialists