There is a better, fairer way

Remedying Australia's industrial relations

Greg Combet

I would like to thank the press club for using a photograph of me that is about seven or eight years old in the promotional material. I appreciate that because the last 12 or 18 months have been pretty hard going, and anything that helps you to get a spring in your step is pretty good. And it has been hard going. All my colleagues at the ACTU and throughout the union movement have taken the government on over its industrial relations laws. It is a big thing to take a government on in the way that we have. Governments have a lot of power and authority.

I am very proud of the labour movement for the way in which we have stood up for what we believe in. Obviously this is a very subjective observation to make, but I think that we are winning the debate over these laws. This is not only because the laws are unfair. We are not only winning the debate because the laws are unfair, but because the government has essentially been dishonest. It has failed to argue, I think, a case for the industrial relations changes, and has chosen instead to try to deceive people about the effects of the laws and the motivation or the rationale for bringing the laws in. I want to start by reminding you about some of the facts.

What do these laws do?

Millions of people employed in businesses with less than 100 staff have lost protection against unfair dismissal. As a consequence, they can be sacked arbitrarily without any opportunity for independent review or redress. Workers in businesses with more than 100 staff can also be unfairly sacked, provided their employer cites operational reasons for doing so. And those same operational reasons can be, and already have been, used to sack people and offer them their jobs back on inferior terms. There are a couple of people here who have come all the way from Cowra today, one of whom was one of the meat workers' delegates at the Cowra Abattoir. It is exactly what happened to them: sacked - 20 offered a job back, with a 30 per cent pay cut.

In addition, the laws have changed the way in which minimum wages are set in Australia. Now the wages of more than 1.5 million people, who depend upon minimum award pay increases, have effectively been frozen. Their ability to keep up with rising prices and interest rates is now in the hands of this rather opaque and I think unaccountable institution called the Fair Pay Commission. This organisation touted that it was going to consult with minimum wage workers in the new approach, by going out into the community and talking to them about their experience of life. When it came down to it, they outsourced that role to a public relations firm.