Originally appeared in The Age on 11 March 2014
Imagine an Australia with no compensation for working public holidays, weekends, or nights, or overtime. Imagine an Australia that allows the award safety net of pay and conditions to be undercut. That's where the federal government is taking us.
This was being engineered mostly sight unseen until Fairfax Media exposed the government's terms of reference for the Productivity Commission to rifle through our entitlements, pay and conditions. The revelation confirmed that this government wants Australians to work for less.
It is a deliberate march to an unwanted destination involving the review of modern awards and the Productivity Commission's slash-and-burn brief, with the first step the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014 being taken into Parliament last week to reshape ''individual flexibility arrangements''.
Such arrangements have been with us since Labor abolished WorkChoices, but Employment Minister Eric Abetz proposes fundamental changes in the name of ''flexibility'' that could strip members of my union, United Voice, which includes paramedics, security guards, bakers and cleaners, and millions of families of tens of thousands of dollars a year. His changes amount to an effective revival of John Howard's hated and unfair Australian Workplace Agreements.
There is so much wrong with this legislation. But perhaps most worrying of all are those changes to individual flexibility arrangements that would trash weekend and night-shift pay, overtime rates, and holiday leave loadings in return for a so-called ''non-monetary benefit''.
Under Labor's laws, these individual arrangements must leave the employee financially ''better off overall''. This is known as the BOOT test.
The Coalition wants to allow these contracts to undercut the award safety net and pay us less.
Members of United Voice rely on overnight and weekend pay rates. Nationally, more than 4.5 million Australians are in industries where these rates apply.
For many of our members, these soon-to-be-tradeable pay rates make up one-quarter of their income. Their work is essential to our community but they are paid relatively poorly, often with base pay of less than $40,000 a year. The exceptions are paramedics, whose base pay after six years' on-road experience is $56,000. This is still much less than the average full-time wage of $77,000.
So let's be clear: these are not affluent people. They work around the clock, and the very night and weekend shift loadings they rely on to pay the mortgage and buy groceries and other staples of life are up for grabs.
The extraordinary thing is that we have been here before. Reflecting on his government's abolition of the no-disadvantage test that enabled individual contracts to sink below award rates, Howard conceded in 2011, that scrapping the test had been a mistake.
Labor reintroduced no-disadvantage in the form of the BOOT test, and replaced individual contracts with flexibility arrangements, while the Coalition assured us it would not legislate against penalty rates. Yet here we are turning back the clock to 2006, reintroducing individual contracts that can subvert awards by cutting weekend and overnight penalty rates.
Crucial to Senator Abetz's changes are new restrictions on the right of Australians to access union information, advice and support at their workplace. Effectively, they will have to ask their employer for permission before they can speak to a union representative.
Without the resources of a union to turn to, individuals are on their own. That puts them at an enormous disadvantage in negotiations.
Our experience with individual contracts is that people often sign away their rights because they are insecure about their job, feel pressured, or lack information and advice.
Consider the circumstances of a woman wanting to work evening shifts so she can pick up her children from school before leaving them in dad's care while she works. She is asked to sign away her evening shift allowance in return for the ''non-monetary'' benefit of having the working hours her family needs.
Why should Australians take a pay cut for employers to respect their family responsibilities?
Over time, as more employees are signed on to agreements without overnight or weekend pay rates, the nature of work in Australia will be transformed. If adopted, these changes will set us on the path to creating a US-style army of the working poor.
We should be grateful the government's longer-term plan has been exposed. Today, we can see clearly what we stand to lose.
Jess Walsh is secretary of United Voice Victoria.